Potential for growth in New Haven retail

Last night, urban retail planner Bob Gibbs spoke to a crowd of about 30 New Haveners in The Bourse, a loft on Chapel St.

Gibbs, who is also the head of an urban economic planning and consulting business, discussed the ways in which cities can optimize their shopping centers. He shared case studies from cities like Charleston, Southhampton and Columbus in an effort to inspire ideas that can be brought to New Haven. His goal in urban planning, he said, is to revitalize cities’ retail centers by adapting to the residents’ needs.

“We think that you should have stores that your community needs and desires,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said he thinks the future of retail in New Haven is bright. He predicted that Target could consider opening a store in New Haven within the next five years because New Haven, according to Gibbs, needs another large chain store that sells basic necessities. Gibbs predicted that New Haven would see a 25–30 percent increase in total sales if Target came to the Elm City.

Former mayor John DeStefano Jr. attended the talk and agreed with Gibbs’ prediction about New Haven retail. DeStefano said that a store like Target would be a great asset to the Elm City. He added that while New Haven already has Ikea, the furniture store does not hold consumers in the area, unlike an establishment like Target.

Lindy Gold, senior specialist in the office of business and industry development at Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said that from her experience as a New Haven resident she has noticed that while downtown has plenty of boutiques and specialty shops, it lacks places where residents can buy essentials.

“I don’t think anyone can buy anything they actually need downtown,” Gold added.

Although DeStefano and Gold agree with Gibbs about Target, unlike Gibbs, DeStefano believes that more of New Haven’s challenges in terms of retail lie in developing population density, housing development and institutional development. He also expressed interest in generating more activity from the food cart business outside of New Haven’s hospitals.

Gibbs also said that as the oldest planned city in North America, New Haven can improve its retail by taking advantage of its authenticity — a selling point which he believes cannot be recreated in newer areas. He stressed that shopping areas that try to imitate the authenticity of an old town often fail.

Gibbs discussed other reasons that stores fail, including a lack of consumer visibility. He noted that many shopping areas underperform because of hidden storefronts, excessive detail around shopping centers (which distracts from storefronts) and poor location of anchor stores. He added that well-known chains attract large numbers of customers to a shopping center.

Retailers wishing to compete with shopping malls, Gibbs said, must adapt to the new demographic of consumers. He explained that the average female shopper of the ’80s and ’90s went to the mall at least three times a month as a social occasion, but that today’s women generally do not have time to shop leisurely. In fact, according to Gibbs, 75 percent of shopping is done at night and on Sundays.

“Now, shopping is just another chore,” he said.

Gibbs also gave advice to retailers for the upcoming holiday season. He said that a shop-local campaign around the holidays could be successful, and stores should also consider extending hours and featuring owners in advertisements. He said that stores in the United States traditionally earn 40 percent of their profits between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

According to Gibbs, women make up 80 percent of shoppers in the United States.

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