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Expert describes retail’s changing landscape

retail pic croppedRetail has changed big time in just the past few years.

Shopping has taken on a distinct urban flair in Boise, and across the country. Big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart now occupy city centers with offices and housing above them, and with not a parking lot to be seen beyond the front door.

Boise might not have a downtown Target, as does Chicago, or an urban Wal-Mart in a mixed-use structure, as found in Washington, D.C., but the City of Trees does have the downtown likes of a Trader Joe’s, P.F. Chang’s, The North Face and Chico’s.

“Downtown Boise has a very good future coming up,” said Maureen McAvey, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, specializing in urban retail demographics and future urban development.

Maureen McAvey

Maureen McAvey

McAvey addressed more than 60 local commercial real estate players March 18 at an Urban Land Institute Idaho breakfast at The Owyhee themed “Trends in Urban Retail.”

“Boise, I believe, has a great downtown space, has some great creativity,” McAvey said. ”You have all sorts of really cool food and you have accessibility. You have all the ingredients you need for a vibrant place.”

She noted the proliferation of bicycles.

“The nicest thing you have about Boise is nice walkability. You have those small blocks,” McAvey said. “You see young people. You see suits. You see people of all descriptions.”

McAvey’s talk was followed by a retail panel with Karen Sander of the Downtown Boise Association; Brook Blakeslee from Colliers International;  David Wali, a Gardner Company executive; Rediscovered Books owner Bruce Delaney;  GGLO architect Beth Dwyer from Seattle, whose firm designed Michael Hormaechea’s The Afton apartment proposal on River Street;  and moderator George Iliff from Colliers International.

There is room for improvement, the panel noted.

“Buses can run two hours later,” said Delaney, the only retailer on the panel. “It would be easier on our employees (if they can) can take a bus home at 7 p.m.”

Valley Transit buses typically stop running out of downtown just after 6:30 p.m. Downtown boosters frequently bemoan the thin public transit service. McAvey, too, in an interview, said adequate transit is one of Boise’s missing links for downtown.

She suggested testing various concepts, such as running some routes to 9 p.m. or picking a route or two to run every 15 or 20 minutes instead of every 30 or 60 minutes.

“Do an experiment. Go for six months. Market it heavily. If they want this, they have to use it,” McAvey told the Idaho Business Review.  “Let’s get the facts. Let’s try it.”

McAvey’s second suggestion was to have more businesses open on Sundays. Delaney had brought up Sunday hours during the panel session.

“Sunday is our second busiest day after Saturday,” Delaney said. “If you can show people they can make money being open Sunday, that’s a game changer. You can make money seven days a week. That’s better than making money six days a week.”

Sander, the DBA’s executive director, has tried repeatedly to encourage downtown merchants to open on Sunday.

“It has been a lost cause,” Sander said.

Downtown has drawn in 75 new businesses since 2008, Sander said, but Blakeslee notes it’s not an even playing field.

Brook Blakeslee, George Iliff and Bruce Delaney hear about the new retail world at an Urban Land Institute breakfast. Photo by Teya Vitu.

Brook Blakeslee, George Iliff and Bruce Delaney hear about the new retail world at an Urban Land Institute breakfast. Photo by Teya Vitu.

“We are excluding a whole group of retailers,” he said. “(Impact fees) keep a large percentage of start-ups out.”

Downtowns across the country, including Boise, have seen amazing revivals in the new millennium. McAvey described the phenomenon as “overnight 20-year successes,” quoting Bridget Lane, director of Business Districts Inc. in Evanston, Ill., with whom McAvey co-authored the ULI publication, “Retail in Underserved Communities.”

“That’s exactly what’s happening across the country,” McAvey said.

Another thing that’s been happening across the country is the death spiral of shopping malls. Only about one-fourth of the traditional malls in the country are healthy, McAvey said.

“Half the malls in the country will be torn down and used for education and medical uses,” she said. “They will not be here in 10 years.”

That’s happening in Boise. Boise Towne Square is flourishing, but the ParkCenter Mall, though not torn down, now houses the Sage International School.

McAvey said retailers have changed drastically. Target stores are no longer always a huge 250,000 square feet. Urban Wal-Marts don’t necessarily come with surface parking.

“We’re moving to all sizes,” she said.  “We used to have a set format. Forget that idea. They are totally sizing their stores based on what they have to work with.”

Non-compete clauses are going by the wayside at shopping centers, where real estate managers once dictated what type of stores could rent space, and what they could sell.

“Retailers don’t want to limit anything they can sell,” McAvey said. “If you can make a buck on it, you want to sell it. You can buy toilet paper at Staples. We don’t know in some sense what retail is anymore.”

McAvey said “choice” is the key ingredient in the current retail world, expanded to downtown housing. She said downtowns need to offer different types of housing and retailers have already learned they need flexibility to serve Generation Y, as “young people are using the city as their living room.”

“The big word is choice,” McAvey said. “Not everyone wants the same things. On the retail front, we are seeing all sorts of mix.”

About Teya Vitu

Teya Vitu is an Idaho Business Review reporter, covering commercial real estate, construction, transportation and whatever else may intrigue him in the moment. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_TeyaVitu.