Seeking The ‘Real’ Deal: Downtowns, Neighborhoods Look To Lure Shoppers With Hands-on experiences, ‘personality’

By Kecia Bal
The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

At Adorned Accessory & Gift Boutique, shoppers can peruse bath and spa products on an antique sink, jewelry arranged in an oversized armoire — really a hatch that shop owner Jessica Martella purchased at a yard sale — or a wine-themed candle line, in and on crates and barrels.

The idea is to tell “product stories,” Martella said — and the concept of creating a more realistic setting for products plays into a bigger trend toward authenticity in shopping experiences, both on an individual store level and in clusters of commercial spaces.

Where malls were once one-stop shopping spots, a neighborhood such as Lawrenceville in Pittsburgh can find success as a “boutique district,” with dining, cafes, shopping and art galleries.

This Black Friday and holiday season will see shoppers making their purchases at traditional malls and shopping centers, but also in downtown districts or retail “neighborhoods.”

For Martella, situated along Franklin street near Conemaugh Health Center’s main campus, foot traffic is steady — but the key to luring shoppers from their mobile devices and computers has been the hands-on experience.

“Online, you’re looking at just an isolated picture of a product, but you’re not really seeing the story,” she said. “It really does seem like there’s a movement toward (neighborhood shopping districts). Malls are usually not as unique as places where you can enjoy the flavor and personality of each shop.”

In his work in Johnstown, including with the Johns-town Area Heritage Foundation, architect Paul Rosenblatt, founding principal of Pittsburgh-based Springboard Design and adjunct professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, said he sees some of the structures in the region available to tap into a push toward an experience-based shopping district.

Shopping in place
Rosenblatt’s firm recently completed renovations for the Carnegie Museum of Art Design Store, with a similar focus of products in place.

“I think that project is indicative of a trend in retail design, generally, in the sense that it focuses on a more carefully curated selection of objects and products,” he said. “It’s more lifestyle displays, lived-in scenarios.”

Design-forward chains such as Crate & Barrel or Anthropologie employ similar techniques.

“Products are sort of placed into room-like settings with different kinds of products mixed up together,” he said. “You might have dishes and books and textiles all combined.”

On a shopping center scale, Rosenblatt said, whole communities have offered that mixed-together scene: restaurants and specialty stores in a stroll-and-shop scenario.

“If you look at communities that have turned their economies around or transformed into vibrant living and breathing communities, they’ve taken pretty ordinary streets and animated those streets with retail on the ground floor and living upstairs — in situations that are not that different from the streets in Cambria City and downtown Johnstown,” he said.

“The storefronts in Gazebo Park and adjacent streets could all have shops and boutiques with similar approaches to lifestyle displays.”

While developers in metro areas have funneled millions into re-creating a sense of place through mixed-use developments, the region has some of that infrastructure in place already, Rosenblatt said.

Bakery Square — a new mixed-use development located in the East End neighborhood of Pittsburgh at the existing site of the historic Nabisco Factory — is one example. It also houses a major employer, Google.

That development, critically, includes a large parking garage, Rosenblatt said.

Big-name retailers typically are not fits for downtown spaces because of square footage and other criteria for their stores — but small specialty shops can fit the bill, he said.

“That links, of course, with maker spaces and small-scale retail that is transforming the country’s economy, and I think could really big role to play in the reinvention of Johnstown’s downtown,” Rosenball said.

“One of the issues, though, is how to manage expectations about parking.”

District distinction
Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood has the “sense of place” that would fall in line with neighborhood district shopping, although it would take additional work to build up the retailers, JAHA President Richard Burkert said.

Burkert is part of a Cambria City Neighborhood Planning and Advisory Committee. Cambria City is one of Johnstown’s five certified historic districts.

The others are the Central Business District, Minersville, Moxham and Old Conemaugh Borough.

“I think it’s a tremendous concept, though I know there are a lot of hopes and expectations of everybody to push the downtown at the same time as a unique shopping destination,” he said. “I think Cambria City has tremendous potential, though we’re far from seeing it fully realized.”

Like tourism, shopping can be about “a sense of place,” he said.

“People are looking for something real,” he said. “There is a homogeneous quality in America with the shopping districts with the same stores and chains. There is a sentiment in tourism and retail that people are looking for something different, something unique, something real.”

What’s missing now, he said, are additional shops in the neighborhood to build on what stops such as Bottle Works and B & L Wine Cellars have created.

“One phrase is a ‘stroll district,’ like the South Side (in Pittsburgh),” he said. “That’s a combination of dining and shopping venues.”

Downtown vibe
Johnstown’s Director of community and economic development, Renee Daly, said leaders are working to create a vibe — and shopping — in the Central Business District.

“There’s an absolute need to have retail in the downtown,” she said. “But it has to be more a destination retail than any other store you could find anywhere.”

The city department is working with Johnstown Area Regional Industries to lure downtown development — either retail and or “family sustaining” job creation, aligning with Vision 2025 efforts.

A recently completed inventory of available downtown space illustrates the potential, she said.

The inventory showed 21 completely vacant buildings — 10 percent of the 215 buildings in the Central Business District. It also showed that within the 139 commercial buildings, 979,847 square feet of commercial space is available.

“We’re trying to complete efforts with incentivizing businesses, either through a loan program and free or reduced rent or utilities to help with costs to move downtown,” she said.

Popping up
One idea to get storefronts filled is pop-up shops for both downtown and Cambria City, Daly said.

Pop-ups are temporary or seasonal venues that might be open a few weeks or months, offering specialized merchandise — in the “Halloween costume store” or “Christmas tree vendor” model. Traditional retailers will often test products or marketing plans at pop-up sites.

“With the 979,000-plus square feet of commercial space, could we do these pop-up stores?” she asked. “We all have our ideas of what we’d like to see downtown: specialty shops, shoe stores, women’s clothing.

“To do the pop-up could show the market availability.”

They could also make for incubator spaces for new businesses, Daly said.

The concept has worked well in other cities working to recover, such as Detroit, according to Niani Tolbert, founder of Creative CNTRL, a New York City and Miami-based “experiential” marketing and pop-up shop agency.

Pop-up shops, she said, especially those with interactive experiences that can connect digital shopping with brick-and-mortar retail, can appeal to spontaneity and a sense of urgency. Those elements are especially important to millennials, who are to account for nearly $1.4 trillion in spending by 2020, Tolbert said.

And pop-up shops fill empty storefronts in an exciting way, she said.

“Shoppers are definitely looking for things that are authentic or more of an experience — whatever is interesting,” she said. “Also, if you can get a one-of-a-kind product or a unique product you could find in something like a market, then they’re more willing to purchase.”

For empty real estate, she said, pop-ups can “show the potential of the city,” she said.

Toys R Us is one big-name store that annually uses pop up shops — around 600 nationally — to boost holiday sales, but it can also apply to mom-and-pops or entrepreneurs testing the water, she said.

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