Here is something to chew on. One of the biggest factors in the success of your downtown or commercial district has nothing to do with local purchasing power. As any broker or retailer can tell you, retail success is based on a variety of conditions and as a firm we have always taken a comprehensive approach to understanding retail environments, one that extends far beyond leakage calculations. As urban planners, we are also quite cognizant of the impact of the physical environment and its role on successful retail. Whenever I train downtown practitioners, I tell them to think about their job this way – “your job is to create the conditions to ensure businesses succeed, to ‘set the stage’ for a retailer. If you can do that well you have done a good portion of what you were hired to do.”

So while understanding market demand is a critical and often a first step in determining opportunities for downtown retail, we have always posited that retail market analysis requires an analysis of much more than market demand. Our approach, developed over nearly twenty years of field work, looks at four key areas – the physical environment, the business environment, the market demand generated by residents, employees and visitors, and the adminstriative capacity to improve and manage the district over time. In fact, these four elements are part of a tool we developed for the City of New York and funded by the Local Initaitive Support Corporation called the Commercial District Neighborhood Assessment tool (CDNA). I like to call it “Commercial DNA”. The goal of the assessment is to understand the fundamental and dinstincive qualities and characteristicts that make a commercial district unique – much like our DNA is what makes each of us unique. This kind of asset-based retail analysis is by nature much more comprehensive, and allows us to develop a clearly defined set of improvements, interventions and activities that will build off of local assets and ensure more viable and sustainable retail environments.
This post focuses on one specific element of the Commercial DNA assessment, that of the physical environment and in particular issues of access, convenience and visibility. The failure of a retail environment to ensure these fundamental conditions are met can ultimately undermine retail performance in subtle but destructive ways. Below I’ve outlined a few issues that we see come up quite frequently when looking at traditional downtown environments. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start for those looking to diagnose “access” challenges.
Access/Convenience
Two Starbuck exist comfortably across the street from one a
nother along Mission Street in San Francisco.

For many goods and services, customers are driven by convenience and ease. The minute you ask a potential customer to wait at a light and make a left hand turn across a few lanes of traffic, you have decreased the likelihood that they will do it, and therefore decreased sales volume for a business. The same holds true the minute you ask a shopper to cross a busy street to grab a cup of coffee on the way to work. This is precisely why there are two Starbucks across the street from one another on Market Street in San Francisco, for instance. And it is also why Dunkin Donuts’ site selection criteria includes being on the “in bound” side of the street, or take-out food businesses want to be on the “out bound” side of the street to grab customers on their way home from work. In both cases, the idea is to faciliate an easy purchase in every way possible. Basically, it is a basic human reflex to find the shortest distance between two points, and downtown retailers need to find ways to make sure customers can easily walk in the front door with the least hassle possible. This is one reason why we perform a block-by-block analysis in our work, because each block and each corner holds unique challenges and possibilities for retailers that often must be addressed.

Visibility
Stores, particularly mom and pop stores that do not advertise like national chains, need visibility from every angle to compete.

Years ago I met the owner of this ice cream store in
Downtown Bethesda, MD, (then Gifford’s)
who told me that this vertical ice cream cone made a huge
difference in sales when he put it in. Clearly Haagen Daz agrees.

When a quick glance by a passing pedestrian or motorist is your only form of advertising, you better work hard to make sure you are catching the customer’s eye.

If buildings are blocking visibility or if signage is non-existent or only facing one way, the lower visibility will affect sales volume. This matters even more for convenience shopping when there are no anchors. For many businesses, and especially mom-and-pops, the lost of even a single every matters. This is why 150 feet can matter to a retailer deciding between a corner location (called an “end cap”) with high visibility from all angles and a mid-block location.

Retailers will also wait for the right site, even if it means foregoing a market entirely. A few years ago we talked to CVS about a location one block from a subway stop in a market with high demand and limited drugstores offerings. The response was “come back to us if you can get us that corner location. There is no way I can go to our real estate committee with anything less than what we consider a 100% corner”.

That brusk response is not uncommon, but some of the challenges of a site 1/2 a block off a 100% corner can be offset by signage. Our work a few years ago in Mount Washington, Pittsburgh, PA bore this out. After blade signs were introduced down a sleepy street, pedestrian counts increased by 30%, businesses reported increased sales volume, one jewelery store owner was able to keep his store open a few extra days a week and vacancies declined.

Enough parking, but not visible or comfortable to use

The walkways in Shadyside, PA to rear parking lots are well
lit and attractive. Source: Google Streetview

In many downtowns, the problem isn’t a lack of parking, but rather a lack of visible parking directly in front of the stores that shoppers want to patronize. Of course many will argue that people don’t park in front of the store they want to visit when going to a mall, so why should downtown be different? In theory, that is true, but the problem is that struggling downtowns do not function like the malls (yet). They often have successful retailers and restaurants interspered among vacancies or less attractive offerings. The take away here is not to solve for the problem by putting lots of parking in front of a given store, but rather increase density of offerings so that shoppers can in fact patronize multiple stores at once, rather than a single destination.

South Orange, NJ has nicely landscaped
walkways to rear parking lots.

Another issue with parking is the perceived inconvenience of parking in a lot that is a block or two from a shopper’s ultimate destination. To make matters worse, sometimes the public realm between the lot and the retail area is so poorly tended that a block long walk can feel a lot longer. For example, in areas where heat is an issue, the lack of shade trees can make a short walk oppressive. Other issues include lighting, or giving shoppers something interesting to look at while they walk. Without these improvements, walking can be uncomfortable and unappealing. Some communities have addressed these connectivity challenges fairly well – South Orange in New Jersey and Shady Hill in Pittsburgh come to mind. Both have invested in well tended landscaping and pavings along these mid-block alleys that make the experience of walking to/from the parking lot more pleasant.

Inadequate Street Crossings
Even minor barriers affect shopping behavior. Asking shoppers to walk to the end of the street before crossing results in a loss of shoppers and sales volume. We worked in one community in New Jersey where the lack of a mid-block crossing was resulting in significant detrimental affects for all businesses. Whereas the district could have felt cohesive, offering 60k + sf of total offerings and drawing from a larger trade area, retailers and property owners made it more difficult for shoppers to patronize both sides of the street. In fact, you were prohibited from parking in one lot and patronizing businesses on the other side of the street. Instead, you were expected to get back in your car and park in the lot across the street if you wanted to patronize a business within 50 ft of your already parked car. Once a drive is in the car, they are likely going elsewhere. This only means lost business for all businesses.

As I said, this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it gives you insight into the variety of issues that we consider, beyond discretionary spending power, that make a difference between a successful downtown retail environment and one that is struggling.

Please check out our website (larisaortizassociates.com) for more information on how we can help your community.