With 2 years of working the retail circuit in Kent, I can say honestly say that the pronouncements of the death of retail are greatly exaggerated. I say that based on the difficulty I’ve had finding retailers vacant space for them to move into. Kent has definitely had its share of high visibility stores leave (e.g., Giant Eagle, Thompson’s Drug Store), which has left a bad impression of the state of retail, but at the street level, there’s not nearly as much vacant retail space as you’d imagine. Frankly, it would only take a couple of new stores to fill up all the remaining vacant space downtown. Now we might wish for a different type of retail mix that occupies that space, but that really takes us to a different issue — the availability of quality space.
A good civil engineer once told me that the space where retail goes is as trendy as retail clothing itself — styles come and go. And if you visit the successful retail stores often enough you know that they change the displays, the layouts, the lighting and the look inside the stores a lot. It’s just part of the retail game to stay fresh, relevant and more hip than the competitors.
I’d argue that the same need to stay fresh inside the store also applies to outside the store as well. My engineer buddy said that he figures a retail building has a shelf life of 15 to 20 years, after that it’s time to tear it down and start again. Granted, he gets paid to tear down and rebuild so to some extent he may be a bit self promoting, but on the otherhand, his business was booming following that formula so it makes it tough to argue with his logic.
Consumers may be tiring of the sterility of the mall shopping but it has definitely changed their expectations of stores. People have grown to expect easy access to a sea of parking, lots of retail choices with one stop, and quality conditions inside and outside the mall. These criteria don’t agree with everyone and thankfully many people are pushing back against the sense of the manufactured shopping experience choreographed in malls — which is why downtowns are re-emerging on the retail radar screen.
While this back to downtown movement is exciting, it’s important to remember that it’s not the downtown of yesterday. Like it or not, malls (and frankly now the internet) forever shifted the shopping experience so what we’re talking about here are new downtowns that mix a little of the old with the best of what’s new. That’s what retailers need — they have to sell a good product but they also have to sell it with a particular style of shopping experience.
And we’re not just talking those big national chains that have a ready-made script and formula for square footage of product presentation — even the small “mom and pops” have to be tuned in to shopping dynamics. Don’t kid yourself, just because local shop owners don’t have the backing of a national brand name, the ones that are successful absolutely have their own formula’s for success and that includes the layout of their stores.
I’ve talked to enough small local store owners to have learned that sophistication in retailing is not limited to the big boys, just because they’re local doesn’t mean they aren’t sophisticated. Granted, they like to distance themselves from the big chains by emphasizing their customization versus the chain’s sense of mass production but these business owners are just that, “business owners” and they have remarkably well thought out and executed business plans — they just don’t necessarily want to emphasize that part of their business because that’s their competitive edge against the big guys but they are truly shrewd business people in cognito. If they weren’t they wouldn’t last.
We have one very successful local retailer that is considering opening what would be their third store in the region in the Kent market. He literally has a list of some 25 different criteria that he looks for in making a decision to open a new store. He may be local but he’s as strict to his business principles as WalMart. Sitting and talking with him is like being back in college, getting a retail degree. He markets the heck out of his home grown, organic, small town sensibility but behind it is exceptional business acumen.
So what does all this mean for us in Kent? It means we have to take a serious look at the quality of the retail space in Kent. It’s exciting to see businesses move back into downtowns in other cities — that certainly bodes well for the possibilities in Kent — but if you look closely, businesses aren’t moving into low quality spaces, they’re moving into renovated buildings that have been updated to meet business and consumer standards today.
Now that doesn’t mean tearing everything down, it just means adapting what’s there to get people excited to come to it, and marketing our niche in a way that is relevant and meaningful to people today, not 20 years ago. The really blighted properties are easy to see and they do need to probably come down. But it’s all those “tweeners” that have lost their edge and are don’t fit what businesses need today that are hard. They can look okay, so we lapse into a complacency about them and wonder why stores aren’t moving in, without thinking about what’s inside and whether they meet the needs of today’s retailers and shoppers.
Even hot downtown retail markets are constantly in a state of transition, adding new, adapting old, making the best of both. Think of Hudson for example. Yet, in our case in Kent, many of the buildings have not kept up with today’s business needs. It’s great to have nostalgic feelings of what used to be in them, but in the mean time, retail is passing them by.
I think it’s shortsighted to think that not reinvesting in our building infrastructure is justified by our counter-culture rejection of malls and national chain stores. But frankly, I think that misses the point. Good retail space is good retail space regardless of who owns it, and whether they admit it or not, the successful moms and pops want the same sort of quality space that the big names are looking for. So if we’re going to give the small guys a shot to succeed in Kent, we’ve got to get them premium space to do business in.
After talking prosects around to see our strip mall spaces, and our downtown space, what’s vacant in Kent right now is a tough sell. Hopefully, Main Street and other initiatives that we’ve started will be a catalyst for reinvestment because honestly, that’s what’s needed more than anything right now.