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.

“It also helps real estate agents to sell the property,” Tolbert said. “It can be elaborate or minimal — either to test out the market or to push inventory.”

The ‘center’ evolution
The cycle — from downtowns to strip centers to malls and back to outparcels and strip centers — means those who handle leasing spaces in malls have to consider where those shopping centers fit for today’s shoppers.

Commercial Real Estate Broker Bill Trevorrow of CCN Properties in Richland Township is working with Zamias Services to lease spots inside the Johnstown Galleria and strip spaces — and he sees a mix of what new retailers want.

“Some that used to be in malls now want to be in strip centers,” he said. “Some of the strip center folks want to be free-standing now. Now you’re seeing that malls have to get creative with the mall and start looking at different entities — everything from office to medical and entertainment venues.”

The Galleria is considering more entertainment options, he said.

“What we have to recreate is people who want to go to the mall to spend a couple hours,” he said. “Before computers and cellphones, you’d go there to meet and gather and hunt for things. It was all part of the experience. Now every developer across the country is struggling with how to build a better mousetrap again.”

Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said the national picture for is strong, with 2014 one of the best years on record and 2015 lining up to be similar or better.

“We’re seeing occupancies at extremely high levels and retail sales are continuing to grow,” he said. “On the other side of the coin, (a change toward mixed-use) is really more market-based. It’s up to certain factors in each market. It’s definitely something I’ve heard about or seen where mixed use has become more prevalent — either after the fact or when it’s built.”
Even in more mixed-use settings, the retail component is still core, he said.

“Very rarely is there a situation where the entire property has to go,” he said. “It does happen. It’s a competitive business.
“For the most part, we’re seeing a very steady situation. You do not have a lot of new development occurring. You have a lot of money being pumped back, and they’re really strengthening those assets.”

Still, struggling malls have been a reality in the region.

Just this month, Wells Fargo Bank foreclosed on the Zamias-owned Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills in Allegheny County.

Malls that are surviving, Trevorrow said, are being aggressive about adapting and tailoring to regional needs.
“You have to cater to the local flavor,” he said.

Dunham’s Sports, in a Galleria outparcel, is a store that has performed well and fit into regional demographic needs, he said. Downtown spaces are a tough sell, at least to big retailers, he said.

“Very few stores will go in the urban market like a downtown,” he said. “Until they start putting free parking lots downtown, you will not attract other retailers. They want their customers to be able to pull up, get out of the car, walk 70 feet or less, get what they need, load it back in their car and go.”

Mixed-use model
The Georgian Place — now the Georgian Place Medical & Professional Center and Village Shoppes — has found a diversity of answers to replace what once housed factory outlet stores such as Banana Republic.

The destination on a hill now is about one-third medical offices and one-third local retailers — including antiques, clothing and furniture stores. The rest is service-oriented space, with a gym and a large space for the Boys & Girls Club of Somerset County, a nonprofit.

“The model, in a nutshell, is destination retail,” Georgian Place leasing Vice President Tonya Spangler said. “We’re on a hill and created this mixed-use complex. That’s what the demographic needed. There was always room for retail to be part of that. Retailers here have been pretty successful.”

That idea appeals to convenience — locally and in large metro areas where multi-million-dollar master-planned communities are set around new town squares built to look historic and that include shopping, dining and residential units.

“That’s why you see a lot of town centers developing like crazy and mixed-use developments,” she said. “People want to live where they can shop and eat.”

On a local scale, the idea can be built — tweaked to include local specialty stores instead of chains, she said.

“The Georgian place is unique, I think, because we are in a rural market but we’re able to do the same thing with medical, office and local shops,” she said. “If you look at (Washington) D.C. markets, it’s more national name brands. Here I think it brings a lot to the community because it gives the local retailer a chance.

“I think it’s great to have the mix. Traffic from all the different tenants — like the medical offices — drives traffic to one another.”

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