Downtown Retail Part II. Food: Capture What You Should Own

People spend a lot of money on food. In 2006, the average total expenditures for food by households in the bottom, middle and top income quintiles were $3,195, $5,614 and $10,212 respectively. And the need to eat is fairly inelastic. Proximity and convenience are major factors driving food purchases, with higher fuel costs just increasing their strength. Food emporiums and eateries bring more customer traffic into small and medium-sized downtowns than any other kind of retail. Additionally, working parents have been able to juggle increased time spent at work and with their children by reducing their time invested in food preparation and food shopping. Therefore, even with the rising cost of food, small and medium downtowns can and should own the food expenditures of local residents.

Restaurants – First, we’ll start with the obvious. Downtown restaurants play critical economic and social roles for their downtowns and entire communities. They are not only places where people eat, but also where people spend time with significant others, friends and family – allowing time-pressed consumers to both dine and meet their needs for “quality time.” Good restaurants help reinforce the downtown as the Central Social District and the social heart of the community. Notably, restaurants often also serve as entertainment venues for their downtowns. Restaurant niches have been pivotal in the revitalization of downtowns – with local restaurateurs opening in many locations that national and regional retail chains initially bypass. While the National Restaurant Association projects slower growth for restaurant expenditures in 2008 as compared to 2007, it still projects growth. Finally, an analysis of BLS data shows that food-away-from-home spending has been increasing faster than inflation, with the largest increases in households in the top income quintile. In 2006, households with children accounted for 40% of all food-away-from-home expenditures. Downtowns with higher income residential neighborhoods and large pools of working mothers should tap into these markets.

Supermarkets and Gourmet Markets – Nationally, households average 2.1 supermarket shopping trips a week, making supermarkets potentially huge generators of downtown customer traffic. For many small and medium-sized downtowns, “food at home” is their most important retail niche: 62% of supermarket shoppers also shop in other nearby shops. However, traditional supermarkets can adversely impact a downtown when they are located in self-contained, pedestrian-hostile shopping centers surrounded by a sea of parking. The good news: Downtown-friendly supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods, that squeeze into tighter urban locations and in mixed-use projects are growing. Additionally, there is a new trend toward smaller downtown food and gourmet markets with stores in the 6,000 SF to 15,000 SF range, including Balducci’s, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Garden of Eden, Zeytinia and The Natural. This trend towards smaller, often gourmet markets, means it is much easier to locate a quality food market, capable of drawing many customers, in more downtowns without threatening the pedestrian landscape (as traditional supermarkets with their large size and parking requirements do). These stores often take advantage of nearby commuter rail stations and their homeward-bound commuter shoppers. They work well for time pressed shoppers who, often on their way home from work, are shopping without a list for a meal or two and not a week’s worth of groceries. Gourmet food stores also often offer consumers “pick-up” or “prepared” meals that they can simply take home or to the office and reheat – another important retail trend for the time-pressured consumer.

Take Out – As restaurant expenditures are projected to grow at a slower rate in 2008 than in 2007, the National Restaurant Association projects that full-service restaurants will rely more on “take-out, delivery and curbside service to meet Americans’ desire for convenience.” Middle- and upper-income families feeling the squeeze between declining discretionary dollars and time limits (particularly those with two working parents) increasingly will choose take-out as the compromise option. This brings up an interesting issue for downtowns. A large number of auto trips are being generated to stop, order and pick up food. These trips require very short-term use of parking spaces – 15-20 minutes at most. DANTH has found that downtown gourmet markets and local restaurants often do not have enough nearby, short-term parking and as a result their pick-up and take-out sales have suffered (despite pedestrian and commuter traffic). Over the next five years, downtown organizations and their governments may need to look at short-term parking solutions as this niche becomes a strong driver of the downtown economy during tough times.

For the full report on “Food: Capture What You Should Own” visit after June 1, 2008 and double click on the red trends button..

This posting was was condensed from my longer report by Mary Mann.