Shop Talk

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2005

Bob Gibbs is a national urban planning consultant based in Birmingham, Mich., with special expertise in retail development. Involved in almost every new American town center constructed in the last 15 years, he's been to Sarasota twice as a speaker and as a former consultant to the Isaac Property Group, which wants to build Pineapple Square in downtown Sarasota. This month, he speaks to the St. Armands Business Improvement District about the charms and challenges of shopping on the circle.

How would you describe Sarasota to a retailer who's never visited here? I would say it's one of the last undiscovered parts of Florida, and it's an emerging retail market. Currently residents are shopping in Naples and Tampa for high-end goods and special events, but it will eventually mature to a size that is sustainable on its own.

What are our biggest strengths? One of your biggest strengths is that you have been regionally planning and considering growth boundaries and how much sprawl you want to occur east of I-75. It's also a huge strength that you have a historic downtown that has a nice collection of shops. Downtown is now getting complementary retailers like Whole Foods and other restaurants. I'm working for the state of Florida planning division, helping waterfront towns that are struggling because of the changes in the fishing industry. Unlike other cities I'm visiting in Florida, like Crystal River and Daytona, you have a downtown.

Our biggest weaknesses? None that are significant. You're well-managed. You have good infrastructure and a growing market with a good cross section of incomes. The one weakness is that it might be easier to develop in farmland out east than downtown. It's easier to do sprawl development. You don't have parking structures and that's such a big burden on the property developer. It makes developers build luxury residential because parking costs $100,000 per condo unit and that pushes the price up $100,000.

Any other observations about our downtown? Most Floridian towns were built on a highway or major access that was easy to figure out. You're built off the highway. Your blocks are 500 feet long, twice the normal size. And you're on a slight hill so people have to work a little when they walk. Shoppers are that lazy.

You have no retail anchor in your downtown except for Whole Foods, but that's a good start. You're missing department store anchors. Your cinema is too far to walk to and from. You don't have the core national retailers that people frequent. Last year in the U.S. only 2 percent of apparel was purchased in downtowns; you're probably less than 2 percent. I'd like to see the downtown have more of the popular stores-Ann Taylor, DeDe. And home furnishing stores. Your market will sustain a Nordstrom downtown.

There are more than half a dozen large retail projects proposed. What will determine the success of these projects? Probably [the developer] who can get the anchor first. It's predictability, mostly. If a fashion department store has to open five stores this year, you have to guarantee you'll be open by the date they need. If they sense a lot of zoning battles downtown, they'll go to the mall. But your downtown is centrally located and it's got a good buzz to it. Whoever gets the most popular store will get all the other people and best restaurants.

Any bets? I honestly don't know. I was at the shopping conference in Las Vegas last May and there were a lot of impressive pitches from Sarasota. Everybody's learned about you. Naples, Miami, Tampa are saturated. Jacksonville is five, 10 years away from where you are.

Are you moving your family here? It will be our primary home in about three years and we'll keep our home in Michigan for the summers. Sarasota is what we're looking at now. I like the small feel of it, and the traffic's not horrible. I know you may not think that, but your traffic is about 25 percent of Naples'. And I think your regional planning is pretty smart. You've been pretty progressive, allowing high-rises and density downtown.

What do you think about St. Armands? I used to go there a lot in the '70s. I thought it was really beautiful. It needs a little polishing. St. Armands is one of the great urban spaces in Florida because it's on a circle and surrounded by residential. People really love it and talk about it. I think that some of the signage and window displays are a little over the top. They have plastic awnings lit with fluorescent lights like a 7-Eleven. Landscaping, the space, the tenant mix is OK.

What are some of the latest retail trends? One distressing trend is that stores are becoming very high-end or very low-end discount. Supermarkets are either Costco's and Sam's, where you're buying ketchup out of a crate, or high-end. The apparel business is very low-end, like Old Navy, or very high-end, like Neiman Marcus. High-end is breaking all sales records and discounts are doing well, but it's very distressing that we're losing the middle retailer that used to appeal to everyone.

Another trend is that retailers are becoming experimental. They're trying small stores, three-level stores, selling just a part of their merchandise, especially in urban areas. And they're considering non-traditional co-tenants. Just two weeks ago, a Target and Neiman Marcus announced they would be anchoring the same center [at Westfield Topanga in Canoga Park, Calif.].

Why is this happening? It's necessary for them to continue to grow. We have as many malls as we can handle, about 2,900. The growth areas are the cities. Department stores are getting hammered by the big boxes. Wal-Mart is getting clobbered by Target. They [the big boxes] are going to pay attention to the high-end shopper, improving the cleanliness and merchandising of the store.

What about the change in shopping habits? Shoppers are shopping more frequently for shorter periods of time. They're going to the exact stores that they like. They've read the catalogue and they know exactly what they want to buy, so there's more spending per minute. In the '70s, shoppers would go to all the stores and try everything on at random. Not anymore. It's a function of the Internet and catalogues.

There's another new trend. Men are becoming more fashion-conscious, probably because of casual workdays and Tommy Bahama, which sold cigars and big watches so we weren't wimps by shopping there. Men want to have better fabrics. They're wearing microfibers, cufflinks, custom shirts. It used to be khakis for years.

What will our retail situation look like in 10 years? The region will be better served in retail. It's not a sure thing it will be downtown. The Isaacs will do the right thing. If they can do what they want to do, you'll have great retailers in your downtown in a nice urban walkable fashion. If they don't do it, you'll still get retail. It may be restaurants or offices. I-75 is very attractive to retailers.

Where do you shop? Every city I work in.

Which store? I like Nordstrom. I'm tall and big. The Nordstrom brothers are all six [feet] six. They actually do the buying.

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