Lessons from the retail front: competing as an independent.

by Rod Stevens, Revitalization Strategist (LinkedIn)

Fifteen years ago, I was working on a large, mixed-use waterfront project for Microsoft founder Paul Allen, and a design firm out of Alexandria, VA, very handsomely paid, tried to convince us that we could lease 500,000 square feet of space to small, independent upscale retailers.

As I looked deeper, I learned two things:

1) Almost all of the lifestyle malls in America are less than 200,000 square feet (compared to a million square feet for a regional) and,

2) more than 75 percent of the space in most lifestyle malls and town centers is leased to chain stores, primarily because they can afford the higher rents that go with new construction.

Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated in how successful independents compete against the chains and especially the big box stores.

This last week I heard a great strategy from the owner of “Abracadabra”, a game, book and toy store in Port Townsend, in the far left hand corner of Washington State, in the far left hand corner of our country.

You can’t get much more end-of-the-road than Port Townsend, but even so, this store has doubled its size in the last ten years, despite the recession, a main street beautification project, and a shut down in ferry service that took out one of the two lifelines to the town. How did she do it?  With a great strategy that involves keeping the price points low, so that people can always find something to take home.

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