Right retail niche is the key to successful downtowns

Metro Men's Clothing is among the "high-quality shops" on East Passyunk.
Metro Men's Clothing is among the "high-quality shops" on East Passyunk. (PATRICK McPEAK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 23, 2013

It's the "Main Street" approach to revitalizing older towns and city neighborhoods. Main Street, as in Manayunk, where a postindustrial resurgence in the 1990s created a vibrant dining, club, and retail scene that's still a draw today.

Pick a walkable community in the Philadelphia region - Ambler, Collingswood, Haddon Heights, Lansdowne, to name just a few - and it has traveled a similar road back from the commercial abyss into which shopping malls drove many a downtown district. Restaurants, special events, festivals, and resurrected movie palaces lure visitors, who often become residents, attracted by relatively affordable homes and easy access to public transit.

But it's the third side of this revitalization triangle - retail - that often proves the toughest to build, local real estate and community-development observers say. What works in one town doesn't necessarily work in another. And what used to work doesn't necessarily work now.

What does offer promise time and again, these observers say, is finding the right retail niche to fill.

On East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, a restaurant renaissance has "changed the dynamics" of neighborhood retail, resulting in a commercial vacancy rate of just about 4 percent, said Sam Sherman, executive director of the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corp.

"The older retail shops catered to the day trade, but the new shops are focusing on the 'working couple demo' " who come either for dinner or drinks when they leave work, Sherman said. The new retailers stay open in the evenings, to capture the growing after-dark crowd.

The retail spaces there are not big, he said - 1,000 square feet or less - but they draw "high-quality shops" such as the year-old Fashion Horse (handmade items sewn on the premises), the Metro Men's Clothing, and the newly opened Cloth (eco-friendly infant wear).

"They don't need much because they aren't going up against chains, and they know how to do social media, so the Internet is as important as a physical presence," he said.

Investment-grade retail is driven by traffic counts and household incomes, said Spencer Yablon, regional manager and vice president for real estate investment services firm Marcus & Millichap in Philadelphia.

The big names locate where parking is plentiful and free, where square footage is unlimited, and where other retailers already have succeeded, Yablon said.

"The national retailers can't step outside this box," he said.

Main Line developer David Della Porta, who is building housing in West Chester and Malvern, said some emerging downtowns are building on existing, well-known retailers. In Malvern, he said, home-design firms are being drawn by the presence of Sheffield Furniture's area showroom.

Media, where a food focus such as "Dining Under the Stars" drew folks this summer, has lured a Trader Joe's supermarket. But though "storefronts don't stay vacant for long" there, Zubair Khan, owner for the last 37 years of Puffin Oriental Rugs and executive director of the quasi-governmental Media Business Authority, acknowledged, "We do need retail."

It's often difficult for those responsible for nurturing business districts to figure out what else consumers might be looking for, said Danielle Redden, executive director of Lansdowne Future, the borough's economic-development arm.

To find out, her organization surveyed some of the thousands of area residents who frequent Lansdowne's downtown farmers' market each Saturday.

A possibility the survey revealed: "some arts and crafts-based" businesses, Redden said. "The crafters who have booths at the farmers' market do really well, so that kind of retailer might work well."

To encourage niche retail, it has to be easy for such businesses to set up shop, and for rents to be affordable. The "niche" part of the equation is the products or services these retailers offer, and each store typically depends on the others to generate traffic.

Redden cited Lansdowne's Todaro's Music Store, in business since 1988, which not only sells musical instruments but provides lessons, and has an online presence as well. Nearby, she said, is Vinyl Revival, a retro record store that also has a regional draw.

Often, niche means "unique." In Tacony, it's Bulls Eye Darts, which sells English dart supplies.

"It is the only one of its kind in the region, and combined with low rent, it becomes a destination that will draw other businesses to Torresdale Avenue," said Alex Balloon, Tacony's commercial-corridor manager.

When Scott Kaitz opened Comic Station in Haddon Heights, it was for space, not customers.

"I serve collectors from all over the area, and wanted a place that wasn't messy and dark but somewhere I could offer a high level of service," said Katz, whose website features 22,000 sale items.

Collectors of teddy bears support Pat Johnson's Teddies in Mount Holly's Mill Race Village, where rents from flats above the stores keep business costs low.

"My buyers come either in person or online, from all over the world," said Johnson, who also offers teddy-making classes.


aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472 @alheavens

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