Tis’ the Season for downtown retail strategizing

It’s the time of year retailers do much of their sales; the holidays account for almost 20% of annual sales in the retail industry.  This month, I  attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast (courtesy of the WPB Library Foundation) featuring urban retail expert Robert Gibbs, who shared the latest trends in retailing, both urban format and non-urban format. It’s been a great month to scratch my urbanism itch, as we also had Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City”,  come to town November 18-19th (blog post to come) for a walkability summit. I’d like to relate some of Robert Gibbs’ lessons and how they might be applied to West Palm Beach, particularly in our  nascent urban retail districts such as Clematis Street and Northwood. As the talk was given at The Breakers, much of the focus was on Worth Avenue and Palm Beach retail. Mr. Gibbs praised Worth Avenue as one of the best retail streets in the country, with parallels to Rodeo Drive in LA. But much of the market data shared has applicability to West Palm Beach.

Urban retailing is on the rise, with national tenants choosing to locate in urban settings and town centers, and willing to locate in smaller spaces or unusual configurations compared to their strip mall formats. One of the most revealing statistics: 75% of retail sales happen after 5 pm. This is in contrast to the ’70s, when only 30% of retail sales happened after 5 pm. According to Mr. Gibbs, changing demographic  trends (the rise of Gen Y, more one-person households, increase of women in the workforce) have led to much less shopping during workday hours, and more shopping after work hours.  And when people come to shop, they make up their minds very quickly whether or not they want to enter your store. It takes about 8 seconds to walk past a  main street storefront, and the average person decides in 1.5 seconds whether or not to walk in.

The five trends in retail (not just urban retail), according to Gibbs Planning Group: 1. Experience 2. Convenience 3. Luxury malls/higher-end outlets 4. Urban is in 5. International tenants. We’re seeing some of these trends happen in downtown, with international tenants like H&M setting up in CityPlace. The new Palm Beach Outlets tenant mix is an example of the type of outlet center that is successful today. Convenience has to do with being able to park, and Mr. Gibbs says it’s more important to have on-street parking available than to make it free, as today’s shopper values the convenience more and is willing to pay $1 if it means being able to park on the same block as their favorite store. In other words, price parking correctly. He’s obviously a fan of Donald Shoup (mark your calendar: Shoup is coming to give a talk in Delray in May).

Experience is really about placemaking in a downtown setting. What does easy parking matter if your downtown is not a place worth arriving at? Placemaking is a somewhat ambiguous term, but it could be defined as using the street as an amenity, almost like an outdoor living room. It’s been around as long as  cities themselves, if not formalized. The best retail streets are exemplary places, whether Kings Street in Charleston, Worth Avenue on Palm Beach, Miracle Mile in Chicago,  Park Avenue in Winter Park, 5th Avenue in Naples, or Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach. These streets pay attention to details and create an experience that lures people in. That’s an experience people are willing to pay for, and it’s crucial because shoppers have a choice of many places they can drive to and shop.

How can we apply some of these ideas and trends to West Palm Beach? First of all, the nighttime experience in downtown is paramount. That means clean, safe, inviting streets that attract shoppers with an atmosphere to encourage strolling and shopping. If we want people to come downtown to shop, the storefronts need to be attractive and pull people inside. And this idea applies not just to retail but to the entire mix of uses on Clematis Street, as a few eyesores detract from the experience of the whole. We’re looking at you, Pizza Luna and 301 South Olive. Code enforcement needs to be applied to these derelict property owners. And the CRA-owned former Pizza Luna space isn’t exempt. Yes, it going to become a new cafe and that’s a positive development. But it has been empty and looked shoddy since the CRA lease with Pizza Luna ended last March, and it’s taken too long to retenant.  Field of Greens, on the other hand, is an example of a superb storefront. Attractive awning, large windows that draw you inside, quirky street furniture, and cafe seating. This is how it should be done. Another superb example of utilizing the street to draw in customers is Christi at Runway Consignment. She constantly has lots of bikes parked outside her store, and hosts fun events like wine tastings for shoppers to enjoy.

Runway Consignment Boutique, 421 south Olive Avenue
Runway Consignment Boutique, 421 south Olive Avenue
Field of Greens storefront and sidewalk
Field of Greens storefront and sidewalk

We need city staff to put time into maintenance of our streetscape in these retail districts, in particular the lighting and landscaping on Rosemary and Clematis, which are targeted primary retail streets. Too many simple maintenance issues are being neglected, like streetlights that need bulbs to be replaced. And where entrepreneurs are taking a chance and locating downtown, let’s make sure we support them by keeping the streetscape attractive. Scott Lewis landscaping has made a very positive impact to the flower beds on Clematis, but City maintained landscaping is lacking, especially around the tree pits of the newly planted palms. The rubberized mulch experiment has thankfully been abandoned as of last week. Let’s get it right and not cut corners this time. And locator markings (used to locate underground utilities) are in violation of state low-impact marking law. City staff should spend the time to research and enforce these markings, first on Clematis and Rosemary. The community has documented instances where the low impact marking law has been abused.

Lastly, parking garages. Two exciting projects are in the works: DDA projects to paint lively murals in the stairwells of the Evernia garage as well the pilot wayfinding signage by the Banyan garage on Narcissus. We need more of these projects. Our garages are in bad shape.  The City/CRA/DDA should pursue commercial liners on these garages to activate these blocks and create a more interesting and safe walk for shoppers heading downtown. This should be a component of any proposal to redevelop the old City Hall site, as it was with the Navarro-Concord proposal. We should also look to install green walls on the exterior of our unsightly garages.

This is the first impression for anyone parking downtown, and it needs to be excellent. A targeted parking strategy needs to be pursued, but that’s a topic for another day.

Parking garage in downtown Naples, FL
Parking garage in downtown Naples, FL



  1. Pingback: We talk downtown WPB with Jeff Speck | WalkableWPB

  2. Pingback: How to make downtown retail work? Here are a few ideas | Walkable West Palm Beach

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