Hopefully, if you’ve been reading this extended series on retail growth (and don’t worry it will eventually end), you’re starting to get a better picture of how retail decisions are made and what we’re doing to be competitive in that game. I think most people know that it’s been an uphill battle for us, but if you’ve been following what the professionals have been telling us in these articles, you may understand why it’s been so hard. For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer my take too.
Here’s the way I see it. For the last 20 to 30 years, suburban malls and big box retail had home field advantage as consumers grew tired of traditional downtown shopping venues of their mom’s and dad’s (face it, every generation has to reject whatever their parent’s made popular) and this enormous new demographic of mini-van driving surburban mom’s fell in love with the convenience of one-stop shopping being sold at the new malls.
Malls were a perfect fit for the Zeitgeist of the times and their success soon spawned the emergence of super-sized mega-malls, on the premise that if big is good, bigger is even better still. (Texans must love malls.)
I’m no sociologist but you probably don’t have to be one to see how malls changed our culture. From pop music diva Madonna and her material world, to movies that introduced a whole new valley-girl mall vocabularly, consumerism reached new highs thanks in large part to mall madness.
Sitting in Kent 20 years ago, it was probably hard to imagine that the tried-and-true retail formula that had made downtown Kent the place-to-be, was changing. So it’s no wonder Kent felt confident in rejecting the mall project that was proposed on SR 261 in favor of honoring our downtown tradition.
In hindsight today, Kent was at a retail crossroads when it considered the mall project, and we chose the path that had been heavily traveled, perhaps not realizing the force that was to be the malling of America.
Like any new movement, malls and big box retail took some time to get rolling, but roll it did, all around Kent. Kent didn’t sit idly by, it tried to buck the retail trend and keep downtown relevant, but slowly, piece by piece, the “mainstream” downtown stores followed the national trends and found new homes in stip malls and their mega-mall cousins.
So honestly, I don’t see the last 20 years of Kent’s retail experience as a surprise. We made a decision not to play the mall game and we just have to accept those consequences.
But what goes up, must come down, and I believe we’re at another retail crossroad as a generation raised on malls is now entering it’s prime spending years and they’re looking for a new place to spend their money. To them shopping isn’t so much about buying products, as much as it is buying a shopping experience.
They want more than the mundane, falsetto muzac pumped through mall speakers; they want something with some substance, with some history, something real. And guess who can offer that — downtowns. So what was old can become new again.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not recreating exactly what we had before, it’s taking the best of what we had and adapting it to today’s consumers. That’s what we’re trying to do by seeking projects to revitalize downtown Kent.
To me, we’re at another retail crossroads today. We can choose to play or pass at the downtown redevelopment game, it’s up to us. We’ve seen what cities can do by choosing to play (look at Hudson or Medina for example) and we’ve already experienced first-hand what happens when you let retail trends pass you by.
Are we in or out? That’s a decision we have to make as a community.