What’s the future of post-sprawl retail?

CNU board member Ellen Dunham-Jones is featured in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review discussing how retail can adapt to a world of dying shopping malls and shrinking VMT.

Dunham-Jones, coauthor of Retrofitting Suburbia, focuses the interview on turning languishing greyfield malls into mixed-use walkable developments with community retail. But in order to survive in a demographically changing country, retailers will need to do more than change the locations of their stores:

Retailers will have to figure out how to reach a mix of workers and residents and integrate discretionary goods with those that meet everyday needs. But they’ll be able to build relationships with “regulars” and to compete against online shopping by emphasizing local identity and community and offering a social experience. Manufacturers of retail products, for their part, will have to rethink the “supersize me” approach and concentrate on what the on-foot, cartless consumer with her smaller living space will be interested in, such as health and green living. Retailers and manufacturers alike should emphasize fundamental quality over quantity, focus on weaving retail into community life, and get creative about retooling for the neighborhood general store of the future.

As Dunham-Jones says, the way stores present and organize their shopping experiences will need to adapt to a more pedestrian-oriented environment. But developers need to take these particular needs into account as well. Residents of a neighborhood will surely find a 7-11 or a Whole Foods far more useful than a branch of Forever 21. If residents are having to drive elsewhere to obtain necessities and stores are catering to a narrow consumer market, the whole point of having mixed-use space at all is nullified.

And since developers are concerned with the “whole package” of the neighborhood, they are often burdened with the unenviable task of convincing retailers to make these urban adaptations. Even a seemingly small adjustment, such as an entrance fronting the street in addition to the one facing the parking lot, can make a big difference. It’s a tough tightrope to walk. One doesn’t want to scare away commercial tenants, but if risk-averse stores are given enough rope, they may hang both themselves and the urban character of the development.

Photo: Target's store on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis by meetminneapolis via Flickr.


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