Higher rent, increased pedestrian traffic and parking are on the minds of Greenville’s shop owners
Location, location, location. That’s one of the cardinal rules for any retailer. Choosing the right location for a retail store can mean success or failure for a business largely dependent on customers’ whims, needs and wants.
As Greenville continues to garner accolades and top “best of” lists, more visitors are discovering our city. In addition, more people are now living downtown. So what does all of that do to downtown retail?
For some retailers, it means higher rent. Others are benefitting from more pedestrian traffic. Certainly it means a different mix of retail is needed. The downtown retail landscape is changing. But is it changing for the better?
WE’VE GOT WALKERS // Understand pedestrian traffic volume, patterns and trends for retailers, developers and businesses in Greenville >>
Greenville has had unprecedented growth in the past few years, said Mary Douglas Hirsch, downtown manager for the city. Retailers have been responding with more products and an increase in their hours, she said. Customers have also appreciated the recent change to offer the first hour of parking for free in city-owned garages.
“The first hour free [for parking] has meant a lot and has been a wonderful gift the city is offering,” says Deb Agnew owner of Ayers Leathers. Her store, a Main Street fixture for 41 years, recently moved around the corner, off Main Street to West North Street.
Hirsch, along with several downtown merchants, property and business owners, have met informally over the past few months to talk about the changes. Rising rent is the main concern expressed. Hirsch said no formal plans have come out of the discussions yet. “It’s not just the city that can solve the problem; it needs to be the private sector too,” she said.
Longtime downtown business owner Liz Daly of Liz Daly Designs says that while “some changes are good,” it’s a little scary for some retailers. “Smaller businesses have had to leave because of skyrocketing rents,” she said. “We were the fearless ones and the reason that Main Street became so popular.”
Daly’s former location is being demolished as part of the Camperdown project on the current Greenville News site, and she recently relocated her business to Coffee Street.
“Main Street can outprice itself in a hurry,” said Agnew.
She’s noticed retailers coming and going and more open real estate along Main Street recently. Those landlords are going to have to “either wait for big chains or drop prices,” she said.
While pedestrian traffic is lower on East North Street, “moving off Main Street cut out those just browsing,” Agnew said. “Our business went from about a 60 percent sale to every customer to 90 percent.”
While the city can’t dictate the rates landlords charge, there are options for cultivating a good mix of local-owned and national retailers.
Agnew says she sees “a nice blend” of national chains and local retailers. She’s also noticed a change in shoppers who may have only frequented national brands at the mall. Now, those shoppers are coming to Main Street to go to a national chain and stopping in along their way at local merchants.
There is no “formula” anymore for retailers with the increase in online shopping, so it comes down to personal service, notes Agnew. “Southern shoppers are pretty savvy, and it’s more based on quality now. Those are the people coming in the door.”
FAST FACT // According to the National Retail Federation, retail businesses, including food and beverage, accounts for 450,633 jobs in South Carolina and generates $17.312 million to the GDP. Retail’s closest competitor for jobs is the manufacturing sector, with 229,446 jobs.
A helping hand from the city?
The City Center Partnership in Columbia was the first business improvement district in South Carolina. Hirsch cites it as an effective public-private partnership for downtown management and development. The organization provides public space management, economic development, marketing services and public advocacy for downtown Columbia.
The partnership’s board of directors oversees the organization’s mission: filling vacancies in commercial properties, retaining existing downtown businesses and recruiting new ones, expanding the downtown residential base and creating a safe, clean and friendly downtown environment. Business Improvement Districts often provide marketing funds to promote businesses. The goal is to increase sales, which may help owners afford higher rental rates, said Hirsch.
That’s not saying Greenville doesn’t help out merchants. The city offers a business license tax abatement program for new businesses that can reduce or exempt them from taxes for a specified time. There’s also an anniversary discount program, which offers up to a $10,000 discount for local businesses that achieve longevity milestones and are in good standing with the city’s codes and regulations
But downtown isn’t for everyone, Hirsch said. “Some businesses may choose an urban location that includes a walkable downtown, while other businesses depend on drive-by traffic. From downtown it’s only a 10-minute drive to Haywood Road and the mall and to Woodruff Road. These are essentially in the same trade area, so making sure downtown businesses are different from those in the suburban areas is imperative. We work with retailers to explore options as we ultimately want them to find the location where they can be most successful,” she said.
As the city continues to grow, city leaders are working to shift the focus away from just Main Street and grow the entire city. Retailers like Liz Daly Designs and Lily Pottery recently relocated to Coffee Street, which is in alignment with the city’s goal of expanding retail offerings off Main Street, said Hirsch.
“To keep Greenville Greenville, we need to have an eclectic mix of small businesses,” Daly said.
She would like to see the city add additional lighting and possibly more signage to draw attention to those on other streets. Agnew of Ayers Leather adds she would like to see the trolley service expand.
“We hope even more shops will explore side streets as an option, where rents may be slightly lower than Main Street,” said Hirsch.
Retail that people want
As downtown Greenville continues to grow, more retail options will follow. A recent change to a city ordinance now requires all new mixed-use projects to have retail space on the ground floor to keep spaces engaging for pedestrians.
“As space becomes less easy to find downtown, we’re seeing retailers begin to locate on the second story of buildings, like the new White Magnolia Bridal located upstairs at 20 S. Main St.,” said Hirsch. “They did a great job with their window display, which is beautiful and eye-catching. These locations can be good options for destination retailers that don’t require walk-by traffic but still want to maintain a downtown presence.”
A recent downtown retail survey by the city showed that 52 percent of people coming to downtown come for the shopping. Of those respondents, 45 percent would like to see more local businesses and 20 percent would like to see more regional options.
The types of retail they would like to see is a mixed bag, with bookstores, grocery/food, hobby and general merchandise stores all earning high marks.