Downtown Retail? Part II: Downtowns Will Be Effected To Different Degrees

The first installment of this retail trends assessment argued that it was very likely that over the next five years retailers would be facing a situation in which consumers would be having significantly fewer discretionary dollars to spend. The first installment also argued that the resulting increased importance of price in consumer decisions would enhance the attractiveness and strength of price-driven value retailers while decreasing the appeal and strength of retailers who offered shoppers opportunities for “trading up.”

However, there will be some variation in the ways that downtowns encounter stressful economic conditions.

A. Regional Economies. There will be significant variation by state – and by region within states – based on their housing markets (not all are tanking), foreign exports (now hot), agriculture (now hot), auto industry (now cold), etc.

B. Shoppers’ Household Incomes. DANTH’s analysis suggests that downtowns in market areas dominated by middle-income households may be stressed more significantly than those that rely on shoppers from either low-income or high income-households.

Downtowns With Lots of Low Income Shoppers.1 In a very interesting piece of research, Cox and Alm have shown that households in the lowest income quintile have a surprising amount of spending power that is far greater than their taxable incomes: though their average household income in 2006 was $9,974, the average total for household expenditures for consumer goods was nearly twice that, $18,153.

Household income correlates with household size. Factoring for this and looking at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households is just 2.1 to 1, while the income differential between the richest and poorest households is close to 15 to 1. 2

Quite astonishingly, Cox and Alm found that: “The average person in the middle fifth consumes just 29 percent more than someone living in a bottom-fifth household.” 3 This may help explain why, in addition to their population density, “poor” neighborhoods often have bustling shopping districts where merchants can have surprisingly high sales per square foot – e.g., $1,300 PSF.

Cox and Alm explain the surprising purchasing power of America’s poorest households by their financial inflows. They claim that, on average, these lower-income families have access “to various sources of spending money that doesn’t fall under taxable income” amounting to $10,716 per year.4 Cox and Alm claim that the sources of these financial inflows “include portions of sales of property like homes and cars and securities that are not subject to capital gains taxes, insurance policies redeemed, or the drawing down of bank accounts.” DANTH believes that for the many mired in poverty other “financial inflows” may be involved and that substantial portions of these monies may not be very dependent on the business cycle.

DANTH’s review of the Cox and Alm data suggests that only about 16% of the consumer expenditures made by low income families are for discretionary items. This means that 84% of their expenditures are for items that are everyday necessities and for which their “demand” is rather inelastic.

Many downtowns and large urban commercial districts located in low and moderate income neighborhoods are also buttressed against stressful economic times because they have a number of economic functions that must be performed whether the economy is running hot or cold. Among these functions are hospitals, schools, government offices, courts and transportation facilities. Their employees and the visitors they attract are important customer bases for local retailers.

Dart Westphal is the president of the Mosholu Preservation Corporation in the Norwood section of The Bronx (NY), which is dominated by low- and moderate-income households. The local economy is heavily influenced by Montefiore Hospital and has a vibrant commercial district along Jerome Avenue and Gun Hill Road. Westphal feels that his commercial district is not effected adversely by recessions as much as other districts because:

“Hospitals are counter cyclical or at least more resistant to economic slowdowns than other sectors. In the first place people don’t get sicker or less sick depending on the business cycle and our “customers” are not usually making a purchasing decision they can put off. Put another way demand for hospital services is not elastic. Secondly, as other parts of the economy slow down and prices flatten or decline, the ability of institutions to spend money buying and building things may actually increase, helping the area in general maintain economic stability. Local retailers benefit by continuing to have customers (hospital employees) who have jobs. Also at the ‘inexpensive’ end of the residential market there is less purely discretionary spending so that the money that is in the economy is weighted more heavily to basic necessities…not many people trading up to Gucci.”5

Downtowns With Many Wealthy Shoppers. As one observer has noted, there are:
“…Consumers who will buy …regardless of recessionary woes, the kind of folks, who, to paraphrase a WWD headline a few days ago, are more concerned with getting their high heels wet waiting in a drizzle outside of Chanel’s couture show, than they are about this ‘thing’ called a recession.” 6

While this quote may be somewhat hyperbolic, most retail analysts agree that the consumer behavior of the nation’s wealthy shoppers will not be strongly curtailed by the current stressful economic conditions. Some cite households with incomes above $150,000/yr as the income threshold for such recession resistant shopping behavior.

A review of the following statistics from Cox and Alm indicates why the consumer behavior of the wealthy is so resistant to economic downturns. The top quintile of households earned an average of $149,963 in 2006 and spent a total of $69,863 on food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and “other categories of consumption.” The remainder of their income was spent on taxes, $23,376, and most significantly, savings and investments, $47,171. Indeed, among the top quintile of households, all consumer expenditures – discretionary and non-discretionary – represents roughly 47% of household incomes. The same figures for the middle and lowest quintiles are 77% and 182%.

Downtown retail districts such as Rodeo Drive (CA), Madison Avenue (NYC), Greenwich (CT), Wellesley (MA) and Palm Beach (FL) may expect relatively undiminished levels of affluent shopper traffic.

Many “luxury” retailers also developed significant merchandise lines and sales channels that targeted middle income shoppers wanting to “trade up.” They are now being squeezed to the degree that their trading up sales contributed to their bottom lines. They probably will continue to be stressed as long as middle-income shoppers feel they have declining discretionary dollars. These “mass luxury” retailers are often located in strong, revitalized downtown commercial centers such as Westfield (NJ), Englewood (NJ), Old Pasadena (CA), Bethesda (MD), etc. that have lots of upper middle income shoppers.

Downtowns With Mostly Middle Income Shoppers. The first installment of this retail trends assessment detailed the increasing constraints on the discretionary expenditures of middle-income households and noted the importance and susceptibility of dual income households with children. At this point of the analysis it is useful to clarify the implications of this finding for downtown retailers and their downtown organizations.

Working on this assessment DANTH has concluded that:
• For the vast majority of downtowns, dual-income middle class households with children are a very important potential consumer market. They represent a lot of the spending power in a downtown’s trade area. The working women in these households are their most important potential shoppers.
• This has been the case for about 20 years
• Although a few individual merchants in a downtown may succeed with this strategically critical market segment, most downtowns have failed to make local shoppers from dual income households steady retail customers.
• The relatively few downtowns that have successfully developed a dual income female shopper customer base – e.g., Westfield (NJ) and Englewood (NJ) – have been shining examples of downtown retail revitalization
• It is noteworthy that, currently within the downtown revitalization community, there seems to be agreement that the best strategy for revitalizing a downtown’s retail base is to have multi-use redevelopment projects that bring in young professionals (a.k.a. yuppies or the “walking wallets’) and the empty-nesters. When this strategy works the yuppies and empty nesters help create an array of retail offerings and a shopping environment that then can attract shoppers from dual income families
• The yuppie-empty nester-mixed use retail revitalization strategy takes a lot of time to implement, requires large financial investments and usually entails enduring grueling local government permissions and approvals processes
• Strategically, what most downtowns need – especially those that are small and medium sized– is a strategy for attracting the working mommy shopper that is cheaper, quicker and less expensive than the yuppie-empty nester redevelopment strategy.
• Such a strategy will help many downtown retailers and their downtown organizations to cope with the current tough economic conditions.

The pursuit of such a strategy will serve as a filter in the remainder of this assessment.

In our consulting assignments and in our visits to downtowns across the nation, DANTH has observed that in most small and medium-sized downtowns that have successfully attracted working mommies there are other operations that provide merchandise and services for children – e.g., schools; apparel, toy and hobby shops; dance and martial arts studios, etc. These downtowns also tend to have non-retail functions such as entertainment and “pamper” niches that generate traffic retailers can feed on. These observations will provide another filter in the discussion that follows in later postings.
1. A caveat: This analysis does not claim or imply that our nation’s poor face anything other than dire and unacceptable economic conditions. However, in our assignments in Jamaica Center (NY), Fordham Road(NY), Downtown Brooklyn (NY), Norwood (NY), West New York (NJ), Elizabeth (NJ), etc., we have found vibrant low to moderate –income, ethnic shopping centers with surprising total retail sales. We believe this analysis helps explain why those districts are strong.
2. W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, “You Are What You Spend,” New York Times, February 10, 2008
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Dart Westphal, President, Mosholu Preservation Corporation in an email communication.
6. “Fashion Notebook: The Luxury Market, The Recession and What Marketers Can Do About It.” WWD is an acronym for Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion industry paper. Article Here.