From the Chamber / Retail is changing

You’ve read in the paper, the blogs and on social media, retail is dying. Actually it’s not, more people are buying more things than ever, they are just not doing it the same way they used to.

It’s hard to resist paying less and having it delivered to your door, all with a few clicks on a keyboard from an endless menu of items.

So what does this portend for “Main Street USA,” or for that matter any brick and mortar location? Vacancy rates on Greenwich’s Main Street are at 50 percent and at a meeting last month called by the Chamber and held with downtown landlords and First Selectman Jim Marpe, we were told in Westport there was a 33 percent vacancy rate Downtown.

A recent CBS news report lamented that retail rents in Manhattan were down 20 percent and more in other parts of the city. A quick drive down Broadway and you can see more than your normal number of closed shops, same in many locales. While some would bemoan the fact that prices have gone down, one might simply see this as the normal ebb and flow of the market driven economy, and a time of opportunity for some.

For Westport, where Downtown rents went up so fast and strongly, driving out the “mom and pop” shops and with it many might say the character of the area, maybe there is now the potential for them to come back. But simply having a more diverse array of shopping outlets will not be enough to bring the people back.

The Chamber hosted a real estate seminar last month, sponsored by the law firm of Halloran and Sage, all the panelists agreed and said the same thing, the key to retail now is making it an experience. Even the new mall in Norwalk has set aside space for events and will be integrating them into their model. Sure people can sit at home and buy things, but people are social beings and still desire activity and being entertained.

So how is this to be done in Westport? Quite simply, landlords and retailers need to embrace this concept and invest in the organizations who are already taken the lead in creating the experiences. In addition, the national chains need to embrace their communities and not rely on brand awareness alone.

They must reduce their corporate bureaucracy when it comes their individual outlets and give their local store managers more autonomy and of a free hand to participate. By becoming involved, being a part of, and sponsoring events such as Supper & Soul, the Dog Festival and the up coming Blues Views and BBQ not only ensures the events occur, but it brings the very people they need out. Once there, not only will people see who helped make these happenings occur, but they might just walk into their store and become customers.

In the end it becomes a collaborative effort. No one store can make the change, nor can one property owner, but if they invest together the experiences will come and so will the people.

Matthew Mandell is executive director and president of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce.