Downtown shopping spaces can be places millennials crave
Experts at an N.J. Future conference and local entrepreneurs agree that bricks-and-mortar retail establishments can succeed in traditional Garden State downtowns.
Whoever said bricks-and-mortar retailing is dead forgot to tell Jim Corso, Brad Vasquez, and Joe Gentile.
Rex and Karen Bockius didn't get the memo about the all-online retail future, either.
"There are certain things people still like to do" in person, said Corso, who opened Phidelity Records on Haddon Avenue in Westmont three weeks ago.
"People still need to come out and see other people's faces," said Vasquez, since last fall the owner of Lo Fi Books, Records & Coffee on High Street in Burlington City.
And Gentile, a Haddon Heights businessman and tireless borough booster, said purveyors of artisanal food and other products have agreed to be part of a co-op space he's now renovating in an East Atlantic Avenue storefront near Station Avenue. He hopes to have it open in April.
"We're going to call it Local Provisions," said Gentile, whose Local Links market and cafe is right around the corner, on the same block where a new restaurant and coffee shop have opened in recent months.
"Big box retail is pretty much dead," he declared. "In the future it will be … [online] and places like Local Provisions."
This sort of enthusiasm among entrepreneurs, urbanists, foodies and newspaper columnists — particularly a columnist whose most memorable shopping experiences have all taken place in book or record stores — is also shared by some real estate professionals.
Last Friday, speakers on a panel at New Jersey Future's Redevelopment Forum, which drew nearly 600 people to the Hyatt Regency in New Brunswick, said stores offering customers a shopping experience unavailable online or in traditional malls or shopping centers can do well in older, smaller, walkable downtowns blessed with good transit connections and smart marketing campaigns.
"You have to sell things the growing group of young consumers wants. The millennials don't want to just shop. They want to experience things," said Joseph Getz, a retail and redevelopment consultant at the JGSC Group in Merchantville.
A participant in the "Adapting to the Retail Revolution" panel, which New Jersey Future invited me to moderate, Getz said the viability of downtown retail also depends on communities "merchandising themselves as places where people can not only shop but also go to a cafe, stop at a park, and socialize."
To a generation that grew up when malls and big-box "power centers" dominated retail not just in New Jersey but in most metropolitan areas and suburbs alike, "downtowns are new," he added.
Tim Evans, research director for New Jersey Future, recently made a splash with a report on the Garden State's challenge to retain and attract millennials, the coveted demographic whose tastes in pretty much everything are influencing pretty much everyone else.
"Millennials like living, working, and playing in the same place — in town — and that's good news for traditional small-town business districts," he said. "Their generation is largely rejecting the car-dependent model.
"They want to walk to their stores. They can't do it if the stores are surrounded by oceans of parking and designed to attract people in cars."
Businesses tailored to satisfying millennial consumer preferences and offering locally sourced food, spirits, craft brews, specialty coffee, artisanal goods, "curated" inventories, and participatory and public events are more likely to find traditional downtowns affordable, Evans added.
"Spaces are more flexible and you don't have a single large property owner, as you find at a mall or a shopping center," he said. "They can accommodate more idiosyncratic businesses. They can take a risk on an unusual business they think people will gravitate to."
Corso spent 20 years working in independent record stores. He knew what he wanted and didn't want with his own store.
"This space was available, the rent was do-able, I live close by, and it didn't take an overwhelming amount of debt to get something off the ground," he said. "I knew I didn't want to be in a strip mall."
Cultural changes also played a part in Corso's decision. "Vinyl records are back," he noted.
Indeed: Three other traditional record stores have opened on or close to Haddon Avenue in nearby Collingswood and Haddonfield — the two busy traditional downtowns on either side of Westmont — in recent years, as well.
But the improved market for vinyl recordings, independent record stores, and indy sellers of printed books do not automatically translate into hordes of shoppers.
Particularly in a downtown such as Burlington City's, where historic charm, beautiful architecture, and scenic Delaware River views are abundant, but pedestrians are often few.
"I spend a lot of my days wishing I had better foot traffic," said Vasquez. "But I like the idea of having a place where people can talk about books and music and have coffee. I've never seen a store exactly like mine."
The chance to create something different is what motivates Gentile, who is among a group of businesspeople breathing new life into the center of Haddon Heights.
He sees Local Provisions offering a cool, jazzy vibe, free wine tastings, and outdoor seating.
To Rex and Karen Bockius, soap makers who live in Laurel Springs and sell their Barn and Stone House brand at farmers markets in Haddon Heights and Collingswood, Gentile's new co-op makes good business sense.
"It's attractive to us because we don't have to make a big commitment and we don't have to be [responsible for] drawing all of the customers in here just with our soap," Rex said.
"We can expand our line, which we've wanted to do for a long time," Karen said.
The couple noted that some products just aren't suited for e-tailing.
Said Rex: "You can't smell our soap online."