Is the sky falling for U.S. retail?

Is it the Retail Apocalypse or simply Retail Restructuring?

There continues to be a great deal of apprehension about the retail sector. In June of 2017, Business Insider tallied more than 5,000 store closures with a projection of nearly 9,000 store closures by the end of 2017. Fourth Economy has mapped more than 1,700 of these closings across the United States. Traditional brick and mortar retail faces a fundamental challenge from shifts in consumer preferences and advances in online shopping and delivery services. The store closings are the physical manifestation of the challenges facing the retail sector, which often can leave significant redevelopment challenges for local community and economic development officials.

Despite the headlines and the hysteria, overall retail has been adding jobs. Job losses occurring over the last year may be a warning sign, but it is too early to tell. Fourth Economy created a dashboard to track three key statistics.

 

  • Overall retail employment
  • Jobs gains and losses from opening, expanding, closing and contracting
  • Worker separation and hires

 

At this point, the data on retail employment does not indicate a “Retail Apocalypse.” Over the long run, retail has been very volatile and the impact of the recession created a greater disruption than we are seeing now. What is portrayed in the media reflects a shift within retail. Over the past year there have been significant losses in general merchandise, and five other retail categories. These stores represent many of the traditional brands in brick and mortar stores.

 

Sep 2016 Sep 2017 Change
General merchandise stores 3,188,600 3,130,700 -57,900
Clothing & clothing accessories stores 1,351,800 1,321,100 -30,700
Food & beverage stores 3,096,200 3,067,400 -28,800
Electronics & appliance stores 530,200 502,100 -28,100
Sporting goods, hobby, book, & music stores 618,700 601,200 -17,500
Health & personal care stores 1,051,800 1,048,000 -3,800

 

Other categories of retail are increasing, with nonstore retailers (Amazon) leading the way. Gains have also occurred in motor vehicle and parts dealers as well as building material and garden supplies. These gains were not enough to offset the losing categories, but it shows that the retail sector should not be painted with a broad brush.

 

Sep 2016 Sep 2017 Change
Nonstore retailers 539,700 570,100 30,400
Motor vehicle and parts dealers 1,988,600 2,012,900 24,300
Building material and garden supply stores 1,279,100 1,296,600 17,500
Gasoline stations 932,400 940,500 8,100
Furniture and home furnishings stores 477,100 484,000 6,900
Miscellaneous store retailers 833,200 834,400 1,200

 

 

Even if retail is experiencing some short-term declines that portend larger losses to come, there are other segments of the service sector that are adding significant numbers of jobs. The 156,100 jobs added in food services and drinking places is nearly double the job loss in retail.

 

Sep 2016 Sep 2017 Change
Food services and drinking places 11,499,000 11,655,100 156,100
Personal and laundry services 1,458,500 1,491,700 33,200
Amusements, gambling, and recreation 1,616,200 1,635,300 19,100
Museums, historical sites, and similar institutions 161,500 168,600 7,100
Repair and maintenance 1,288,000 1,292,400 4,400
Accommodation 1,950,200 1,954,000 3,800
Performing arts and spectator sports 457,500 459,700 2,200

 

The dire forecasts are overblown. Consumers are shifting from commodities to experiences and many analysts say that retail’s future is to provide more than merchandise. This is as much about where the service is provided as how it is provided. Neighborhood level (Main Street) retail also appears to be adapting to these trends. People looking for and returning to walkable communities has helped, but so has the ability of “Mom and Pop” stores to differentiate through service and quality rather than low prices. The emphasis on more services, entertainment and food has also helped Main Street retail. Recent data on the performance of small retailers is not available at this time,  so it is not possible to fully evaluate these trends but it appears that the dominance of big box and superstore retailers is being challenged on two fronts – online and on Main Street.

 

Workforce and Placemaking

The following is the fourth installment of a four-part series entitled, “Re-defining the Three-Legged Stool: Placemaking as a Component of Economic Development.” (Read Parts 1 , 2 and 3)Three Legged Stool

Workforce is the underpinning of the three-legged stool of economic development. Without a strong workforce, there is no way to succeed at business attraction or retentionand no way to cultivate entrepreneurs. In economic development circles, the discussion around placemaking often centers on talent attraction. The thinking goes that top talent is attracted to places with high quality of life; businesses thrive on this talent and will expand and relocate to those places where talent flocks. So, in essence, places with a high quality of life are better for business.

 

A Change in Economic Forces

It used to be that a community’s economic success was dependent on some fixed competitive advantage such as access to natural resources or proclivity to a transportation network for moving goods. A good example is our firm’s hometown, Pittsburgh, located in an area rich in ore and coal to make steel and with access to three major rivers. Manufacturing created the economies of Pittsburgh and many other cities, but today, talent is the number one most important economic force. Sources from across the economic development spectrum tell us this.  Nearly all the executives (95.1 percent) surveyed by Area Development in its 28th annual Corporate Survey rated availability of skilled labor as “very important” or “important” in their site selection factors. This factor is now considered more important than highway accessibility and labor costs, and certainly more important than incentives offered. We see this in Pittsburgh too, as companies such as Google and Facebook locating offices in town to be close to the graduates of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

But talent is in short supply. Unemployment rates are falling, which means there are fewer people available for jobs. This is felt particularly hard in tech companies, which report a lack of talented workers with the skills needed for the rapidly evolving industry. Another benefit of attracting and retaining talented workers is that they are engines of innovation, whether from the inside of companies where they spearhead new ideas and spin off new divisions, or through entrepreneurship, forming their own enterprises and creating jobs. Attracting new talent is essential, and the best way to bring in high quality people is to offer a high quality of place.

Beyond the Baseline of Quality Markers

Quality of place means many things. A more traditional definition includes low crime rates, good housing stock, great schools, and local culture and recreation. But the cities and regions that are really pulling ahead in the race for talent understand that the baseline is no longer good enough. Much has been made of the “return to the city” and how millennials and baby boomers prefer a dense, walkable environment where they can live, work and play (to the point where urban planning professionals roll their eyes at the catchphrase). But the proof is in the evidence. Cities that provide living space in multi-use areas connected by transit and surrounded by quality recreation outlets are seeing their attraction of talent skyrocket.

Take Denver for example. The city has bet large on placemaking, from the $1 billion revitalization of the historic downtown Union Station to a new light rail system. These investments, coupled with outdoor amenities and copious sunshine, have contributed to Denver being named by the Brookings Foundation as second in the nation for attracting millennials. But it’s not just large cities that benefit economically from increased quality of life via placemaking. Regions around the U.S. are shifting their focus from business attraction to talent attraction. In Northeast Indiana, the focus of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership is to attract new people to the area through improvements in downtowns, greenways and blue ways, arts and cultural assets, and education and industry through the Road to One Million plan (which Fourth Economy had a role in creating.)

Resiliency Means Quality of Place for All

Attracting and retaining talent is an essential component of economic development, but, it’s important to understand that placemaking does not mean only making places comfortable for highly skilled, highly paid employees. A well-designed place delivers quality of life to those at every age and income spectrum. Planning for all members of a population is what makes a place resilient and vibrant.

Providing affordable housing, especially in trendy inner-city neighborhoods, is a tough challenge and one that affects the workforce, especially for essential employees whose wages don’t begin to compare with highly paid tech workers. In places like New York, workers who make under $35,000 are increasingly being pushed out of formerly affordable neighborhoods to outer suburbs. When this happens, the financial and time cost of their commutes rise, cutting into already low wages. While particularly dire for service employees such as retail workers, this also affects teachers and police personnel.

From the placemaking perspective, increasing density leads to more options for housing across the spectrum, ideally situated in in-town neighborhoods that are walkable and served by transit. As the supply of housing increases in these desirable neighborhoods, the price decreases. One tactic to encourage denser development is to allow for “Missing Middle” housing to be developed. Missing Middle housing, a term coined by Opticos Design, is composed of a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types that are compatible in scale to single-family homes. Some examples include duplexes, carriage houses, townhouses, and accessory dwelling units. Allowing this type of development densifies neighborhoods and provides access to housing at a lower price point, without a significant disruption of neighborhood character.

Missing Middle Housing Diagram

Barriers to Small Scale Affordable Housing

Building Missing Middle housing is typically not undertaken by large developers, and therefore is built by property owners, small real estate developers, and community development corporations and financed by local banks. The margins of profit for Missing Middle housing are smaller so in order for these projects to be financially feasible, there must be a regulatory environment that permits these types of buildings. Most existing zoning codes separate housing types so that multi-family is not intermixed with single family and residential above retail is not allowed. This stunts Missing Middle housing by forcing projects to go through zoning hearings that extend the project timeline and cost to a point where construction is not feasible.

Allowing for small residential infill projects to be built not only provides more options for affordable housing, it allows property owners to benefit from rising housing costs, and alleviates increased property taxes. Of course, to truly provide benefit, increased density needs to be coupled with transit to access jobs and services.

A Connected Workforce

Placemaking is a term that can be misconstrued to simply mean making communities more beautiful. While placemaking tactics such as downtown development, street scaping, and encouraging traditionally affordable housing types does improve a community’s aesthetics, if done properly, placemaking can unlock significant economic value. Connected, vibrant communities with a multitude of housing and transportation options return the best value to inhabitants, creating places that workers are attached to and invested in.

 

Placemaking and Business Retention and Expansion

The following is the second installment of a four-part series entitled, “Re-defining the Three-Legged Stool: Placemaking as a Component of Economic Development.” 

The previous installment explored placemaking’s role in business attraction as it improves the quality of life of a community and the marketability of a place. This installment considers how placemaking influences business attraction and retention.

Defining Business Retention and Expansion

Business retention and expansion (BRE) is different than business attraction because it focuses on helping existing businesses already in the community to prosper and grow. Typically, the main tool of BRE is a yearly survey of businesses that economic developers send out to (or make appointments to work through in-person with) businesses in their communities. In cases where businesses are seeking to expand, economic developers can provide access to financing, in the form of revolving loan funds, grants, and other loans, or by providing access to municipal or state resources.

Mixed Uses Contribute to Improved Usability

But, even if they aren’t aware of it, economic developers are also likely engaged in business retention and expansion activities that overlap with placemaking. For example, businesses that are multi-use, such as breweries with attached tasting rooms or small-scale food manufacturers with attached kitchens, often do not fit into one zoning category — though their mix of uses is what makes them unique, and contributes to a lively neighborhood. This can make expansion difficult, and lead to cumbersome zoning negotiations, causing businesses to lose both time and money. If economic developers work with city planning staff to assist business owners in these cases, then they are helping to create more vibrant places with improved usability.

New Uses for Older Properties

As real estate tides change, economic developers will need to be creative about new uses for old properties. Retail outlets and office spaces are being repurposed for apartments, maker spaces and incubators or are being converted into space for existing businesses to expand. The success of these new uses depends on a vibrant, transit-linked, pedestrian friendly environment to attract the kind of young talent that populate these spaces.

Innovation Districts

Creating nodes of activity in centrally located, pedestrian, and transit-accessible areas can also assist with regional business retention. As shown by the Brookings Institution’s research shows, more and more companies are choosing to move from suburban corporate campuses to areas where economic, networking, and physical assets are more accessible, contributing to a rise in what has been termed “Innovation Districts.” These districts combine small businesses, bars, and restaurants with startups, institutions such as banks and universities, and large companies. The diverse mix of tenants leads to more collaboration and an attractive environment for knowledge workers.

Attracting a Quality Workforce

From assisting businesses with zoning issues to encouraging innovation districts, business retention and expansion efforts are improved when viewed through a lens of placemaking. However, the most important determinant for keeping businesses in a community and helping them to expand is a talented and plentiful workforce. Creating a place with a higher quality of life attracts more people to communities and engenders a strong bond that helps retain populations. Smart companies understand this and locate themselves where their workforce wants to live. Placemaking is part of a larger business retention and expansion effort, and offers an advantage that should be used by economic developers.

Three Ingredients to Support Market Opportunities – Moving Beyond Industry Clusters

ProvidenceBlogImageFourth Economy recently concluded a Cluster Development Strategy project for the City Council of Providence, RI. The analysis, conversations and excitement that was demonstrated during the process underscores the need to think beyond traditional Industry Clusters and be open to identifying emerging sectors that may still require definition.

The City of Providence is an example of many communities throughout the country, especially in the Midwest, Northeast and New England, where economies that once were led by industrial dominance are still searching for the right mix of legacy and emerging businesses and organizations to regain strength. While finding an easy strategy to replicate in these communities remains elusive if not impossible, I offer 3 ingredients that must exist in order to advance an approach that embraces Market Opportunities.
Continue reading “Three Ingredients to Support Market Opportunities – Moving Beyond Industry Clusters”

Education Innovation

Remake-LearningI think that few among our readers would argue that fostering an innovative K-12 education ecosystem plays a critical role in economic development. Employers and economic development officials from any industry will tell you that the critical skills for a modern workforce begin at the K-12 level. They will also tell you that attracting and retaining their current workforce means creating a community in which employees want to live, and education is a major factor in creating livable communities. However, influencing K-12 education to ensure that it’s creating an intelligent and creative next generation workforce often feels like an overwhelming challenge given the systemic barriers. Continue reading “Education Innovation”

PA Standing at the Ready: Creating Proactive Strategies for Potential Changes in Defense Spending

PA-Defense-ManufacturingDefense Department budgets are in flux. Factors such as the Budget Control Act, reductions or shifts in spending related to the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and responses to future threats could all create significant economic disruptions for Pennsylvania’s defense industry sectors and the regions they call home.  The state’s defense industry leaders and the communities that support them cannot afford to risk being caught unprepared by waiting for news of budget changes and then reacting to them.  Instead, it is imperative that the sector understands potential risks and prepares for them proactively.   Continue reading “PA Standing at the Ready: Creating Proactive Strategies for Potential Changes in Defense Spending”

The Future of Work [Podcast]

Workforce-Disconnect

In September, Dr. Jerry Paytas was featured on Workforce Central, hosted by the National Association of Workforce Boards‘ President/CEO Ron Painter. Workforce Central features public & private sector leaders in workforce development, education, business and economic development discussing key workforce issues and investment strategies to help America compete globally.

Continue reading “The Future of Work [Podcast]”

Working as a Freelancer

Freelance-Worker-DeskMore Americans are becoming freelancers, and enjoying the freedom of working independently and making their own decisions. Various studies predict that over 40 percent of the American workforce will be freelancing by 2020. Freelancing is what the “American Dream” is all about for many people. Basically, anything you might consider doing in your own business, you can do on a freelance basis under your own name.  Freelancers can be asked to do just about any kind of work you could imagine with no expectation of a permanent or long-term relationship with a single employer. Continue reading “Working as a Freelancer”

WIA to WIOA – What It Means for Economic Developers

The following guest post is provided by Thomas P. Miller and Associates, a national workforce development consulting firm and partner with Fourth Economy Consulting on numerous projects to align workforce and economic development.

Workforce---WIOA-WIAThe Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, or WIOA, was passed in July 2014 to reauthorize Congress to fund federal workforce and job training programs from 2015-2020. It is the first major workforce development legislation in over 15 years and replaces the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, or WIA.

Through WIOA, the U.S. Department of Labor is focusing its efforts on better aligning federal funding with the in-demand skills required by business and industry. States are required to identify workforce/economic development regions and coordinate planning efforts and service delivery strategies. Continue reading “WIA to WIOA – What It Means for Economic Developers”

Start Small, Stay Small and Build Products That Matter…Guidelines for Successful Micropreneurship

141202-MicropreneursIn the words of Steve Wozniak, “If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Micropreneurs are a unique breed of business owner who independently work in a niche market, are willing to accept the risk of starting and managing the type of business that remains small, strive for a balanced lifestyle and have the chance to do the work they want to do. Similar to the old-world model of the neighborhood butcher, cobbler and blacksmith, micropreneurs offer products that make a difference and provide amazing value to niche markets. Modern versions of micropreneurs include programmers/developers, writers, solo consultants and online boutique owners (think Etsy). These distinct business owners strive for little to no expansion, are happy to work alone with no employees and are willing to forego outside funding. One discernible advantage that modern micropreneurs have is access to the Internet which allows them to launch and offer their products or services to a world-wide audience.

Continue reading “Start Small, Stay Small and Build Products That Matter…Guidelines for Successful Micropreneurship”