Brick and Click

How downtown shopping districts can compete against the onslaught of online shopping.
Robert Gibbs
Robert Gibbs

When it comes to shopping, it’s understandable that many merchants are running scared from the internet. The amount of store closures, combined with growing numbers of online shoppers, seems to indicate a trend that’s irreversible.

So far in 2019, about 11 percent of all retail sales in the U.S. are completed online, and that number is expected to grow by at least 1 percent each year going forward. Long-term, that trend will likely continue at a faster pace.

The good news for walkable downtown shopping districts and brick-and-mortar stores is that there’s no need to wave the white flag just yet. By properly executing strategies, tactics, and insights, traditional retailers can maintain their relevance — and a competitive edge.

Downtown shopping districts are one of the areas where real-world businesses have some ammunition to fight back against the internet. With innovative planning and smart design, downtown districts will still be a destination for shoppers in towns and cities across America, even as online sales continue to increase.

From an urban planning standpoint, the best way to counteract online shopping is to have highly successful businesses located in downtown shopping areas.

A strong downtown needs high standards in the design and look of its stores, in order to attract other businesses to join them. It’s critical to differentiate from a modern strip mall look in a downtown. Make people fall in love with the area. Create an emotional investment.

Small details like landscaping, window flower boxes, and outdoor displays serve to attract shoppers. If possible, keep the doors open to increase business. In addition, large trees offer shade and reinforce the district’s unique placemaking. Shoppers perceive better value and quality goods and services in well-landscaped, walkable districts.

Beautifully designed storefronts can be an X factor to woo shoppers. Cities can hire local artists to design signage. Such detail makes a visit to a downtown area experiential and memorable.

Keep things clean by power-washing sidewalks and streetscapes monthly, create painted sidewalks that naturally lead up to stores’ doorways, don’t hide storefronts with trees, and keep trees away from signs.

Authentic historic districts offer a shopping experience that’s not available online. Maintain high building and signage design standards for both historic and modern buildings. Shoppers will pay more for a product they purchase in a historically designed building.

Downtown shopping districts are one of the areas where real-world businesses have some ammunition to fight back against the internet.

Also, it’s best to avoid too many national chains in your downtown shopping district. A chain can serve as a strong anchor in a downtown, but stick to local and regional businesses for the majority of stores, as those are the properties that will inspire loyalty.

Without a doubt, having adequate and accessible parking is the most important thing a shopping district can do to increase sales. Every store relies on visitors being able to park and go into their business. Potential customers, if they can’t find a parking spot, will leave and likely not return.

To put it in perspective, studies have shown every metered, on-street parking space generates $175,000 per year in retail sales. For every two metered spaces, there’s enough revenue generated to support one retailer downtown.

Keep paid parking inexpensive so people won’t be scared off. Be forward-thinking, and use individual meters that take payment from credit cards and smartphones. Beyond paid parking, try to have at least one lot or deck for free parking a short distance away (within a block or two).

Again, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of parking. It doesn’t need to be free, but it must be convenient. Shoppers will pay for convenience, and it’s important that they can park within a half-block of your store.

Many suburban malls are in a bad place, and anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of them are expected to close in the next five years. This is, in large part, due to the loss of many anchor stores in recent years.   

For downtown areas, mall woes can turn into gain. As malls close, retailers usually want to stay in the local market, and often they’ll relocate to Main Street. With some smart planning by municipalities and solid market awareness on the part of retailers, the demise of the mall may help bring about the resurgence of Main Street.

By staying ahead of the curve, planners can improve their downtown shopping districts while maintaining a healthy, loyal following from local shoppers that can allow them to survive and thrive in the digital world.

Robert Gibbs is founder and president of Gibbs Planning Group, an urban retail planning consultancy in downtown Birmingham.