RETHINKING DOWNTOWN ENTERTAINMENT NICHES: Non-Formal Entertainment and Work-as-Entertainment

Thesis: In a contracting economy populated by time-pressured consumers, downtowns need to rethink their entertainment niches to include and foster informal entertainments that are low-cost and convenient.

Most economic development experts have come to agree that entertainment niches are good fits with the assets of many downtowns and such niches have indeed flourished across the nation.

While “formal” entertainment facilities such as concert halls, legitimate theaters, rehabilitated movie theaters, sports stadiums and arenas can generate subsidiary economic benefits and make towns more attractive to residents, visitors and workers, they are often expensive to build and many small and medium downtowns do not have the means or the capacity to develop such large-scale formal entertainments.

In addition, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that most American households began reducing their expenditures for formal entertainments even before the current economic downturn. With the vise closing on the discretionary income of most American households, it is reasonable to assume that entertainment expenditures may be among the first to be reduced. When you factor in the time pressures experienced by the modern household (and detailed in previous reports), formal entertainments seem likely to get further squeezed. In addition, as DANTH noted in our assessment of the future of downtown movie theaters, watching films at home and other home entertainments are eroding the downtown movie theater audience.

The good news? Downtowns of all sizes can develop vibrant niches based on informal entertainments to capture the potential lost audience for these formal entertainments. In a contracting economy populated by time-pressured consumers (research indicates that time –pressed families are increasingly looking for entertainment opportunities that last about 45 minutes rather than the two to four hours usually demanded by formal entertainments), downtowns can compete for time and dollars by providing low- or no-cost entertainments that are close by and do not require long car trips and expensive amounts of gasoline. This entails “rebranding” entertainment as something other than – or in addition to – theaters, arenas and the like. In this scenario, entertainment is “anything that amuses observers.” Reinforcing such informal entertainments can help to bolster the economic health of downtown – its housing, retail, office, and, yes, its formal entertainments.

Public Spaces

Great public spaces provide opportunities for people to engage in activities that they enjoy and that also interest and amuse nearby people-watchers. Think of the ice skaters drawing the ever-present crowds above the rink in Rockefeller Center. Similarly, in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, lounging patrons watch chess players – as well as each other. In Greenport, NY, a much smaller community, a carousel and waterfront location create a wonderful public space where people can watch and be watched by other people. Other downtowns have fostered entertainment with facilities such as:

  • model boat ponds
  • children’s pony rides
  • tables where people can play chess, checkers, or dominoes
  • Wi-Fi hotspot to access and cruise the Internet on laptops
  • places to catch the sun — a favorite pastime for office workers and young tourists in the spring and summer
  • places to buy food and eat lunch alfresco
  • outdoor cafes for sipping coffee and eating snacks
  • slot car racing for kids
  • interactive art installations that capture and play with people’s images, make music or move

Visitors will “perform” if the opportunities are there. Informal entertainments are usually public and usually priced right – either free or, when there are fees (e.g., to ride a carousel), affordable. They are also “sticky” activities. Retailers can feed off of the traffic the informal entertainments bring in, as demonstrated by the busy pedestrian traffic on the street next to Mitchell Park in Greenport, NY. Informal entertainments are also liable to be open when the public would want to use them as opposed to theaters, concert halls, etc. Most often they are child-friendly – and therefore mommy-friendly, too.


Often overlooked is the delight and amusement people can derive from simply watching other people do their jobs. In particular, people have shown a great interest in watching craftsman and artists at work. Historical villages such as Williamsburg (VA), Sturbridge (MA) and Old Town (San Diego, CA) have long had many “demonstrations” by blacksmiths, glass blowers, bakers, weavers, etc. The Miami Ballet rehearses in a ground floor studio with a storefront window, which always attracts crowds of passersby and helps build the company’s audience. At the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA – one of the most successful and innovative downtown retail projects in the nation – each artist and craft studio has windows and often open doors, so the public can watch the artists and craftsman as they create. At the Simon Pearce retail store at The Mill in Quechee, VT, visitors to this converted mill/retail location can watch glass being blown, ceramics being thrown and decorated and fabrics being woven, and then enjoy a meal with views of a waterfall.

This posting was condensed from my longer report by Mary Mann. To read the full report and find the complete sources for “Rethinking Downtown Entertainment Niches,” visit

In addition, DANTH has created photo albums relevant to informal entertainments and work-as-entertainment that can be downloaded now, free of charge, from the Internet:

For the album on informal entertainments, visit:

For work as entertainment, visit:

For photos of the Torpedo Factory, visit:

The Mommy Niche

Cultivating the Mommy Niche
In the last few postings, we have detailed the trends negatively impacting downtowns as the economy constricts, but we have also discussed strategies for overcoming those negative trends.

One such strategy for downtowns is building and/or strengthening the “Mommy Niche.”

The reason is simple: Women are our nation’s shoppers. Though they comprise little more than half the population, women make over 80% of the consumer purchasing decisions. Mothers with children make up about a third of all households and they are spending a lot of money.

Why will mothers be attracted to downtowns instead of regional malls or big box retailers? Mothers employed outside the home are the most time-pressured group and the one most likely to give convenience a heavy weight within their purchasing decisions. These mothers are looking for shorter shopping trips and are more inclined to “satisfice” (compromise between price and convenience) with merchandise available in their downtown shops. They are also looking to spend “quality time” with their children as conveniently as possible, and downtown restaurants and activities can provide the perfect venue.

Activity-Driven Retail
While women’s apparel and children’s apparel shops are very helpful, activities seems to be driving a lot of mommy niches. Family friendly restaurants are key. Restaurants that encourage children with play areas, baby and child-friendly restrooms – even toys – and affordable prices and kid-friendly food will attract mothers with young children. Another key factor is children’s learning centers – dance studios, art studios, kids yoga, karate, even the town library. Mothers can spend time with their children at these activities or drop their children off and be free to shop and catch up on salon needs, grocery shopping or buying presents.

This mix of services and activities provides a customer traffic flow of moms that downtown retailers and restaurants can capture.

Mommy Networks
Through their own social activities as well as their involvement in those of their children – car-pooling, preschool, soccer, etc. – mothers need to be networked with other parents. This need is especially strong for those who work outside of the home and rely on the networks to provide some level of care or supervision for their children. Consequently, in most communities there are strong “mommy” social networks that provide word-of-mouth communications channels.

Local “Mommy Merchants”
Over the past year, DANTH has noticed increased reports about local mothers opening commercial establishments in New Jersey downtowns. These “mommy merchants” have many assets that give them a higher probability of success. For example, they usually bring along networks of local friends who constitute a close-in customer base and cadres of likely store apostles. They are also more likely to be attuned to local mommy needs, tastes and shopping habits. Even more, they are sometimes friends of other district “mommy merchants” and these connections provide a spine for referrals and informal cross promotions. Many mommy merchants can probably use technical assistance. DANTH estimates that between 7% and 25% of downtown merchants are interested in obtaining and actually using such assistance. However, because of their high education attainment and prior professional experiences, it is likely that mommy merchants will have a higher participation rate in such programs.

Despite all this, few downtown revitalization strategies have a “mommy” focus.

How To Make A Mommy Niche Happen?

Downtown organizations need to think about how to make their districts more convenient for visitors, especially busy working mothers and /or stay-at-home moms. Thinking about physical improvements in terms of a “convenience analysis” is the first strategy. Downtowns need to have streets that are easy to cross, public toilets available and kid-friendly, parking that is easy and safe for mothers with children and strollers, short-term parking that generates lots of quick customer trips, and a reasonable distance between parking facilities to shopping and activity. Downtowns also have to cultivate relationships with their local mommy networks. This means identifying the networks and the women in them who are the opinion leaders and message transmitters. Hold focus groups with local mothers or arrange discussion groups between downtown business operators and local moms. Finally, help potential local “mommy entrepreneurs” prepare viable business plans, find downtown locations and link them to other sources of assistance such as business schools, the SBA and state economic development agencies.

This posting was condensed from my longer report by Mary Mann. For the full report on “Cultivating the Mommy Niche” and for a full citation of sources, visit www. after June 17, 2008.

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.