Friday, August 03, 2007

Foot Locker a step, but in what direction?

Downtown Trenton welcomed the new Foot Locker store yesterday.

Predictably, there was a lot of hype about it being a good thing; a signal of the capital city's progress; a harbinger of things to come.

And the hype may have some truth to it.

Certainly it is a good thing when a recognizable, brand name chain store chooses to locate in any business district. The bean counters at corporate do a lot of analysis of a location's demographics before granting their blessing to a new store. Foot traffic and disposable income have to be there in enough quantity to make the shop a success or a lease won't get signed.

Let's not forget the incentives (facade improvements, etc.) that can help swing the deal one way or another.

So the numbers worked in Trenton's favor. This is good...but no surprise. Any thinking person can see the business potential downtown (at least on weekdays). And anyone who can remember Trenton 40 years or more years ago knows what it was like when the storefronts were all occupied and the sidewalks were filled with people shopping, dining out, going to the movies, etc.

If the potential is so great, why are there still so many vacant buildings? What drives people to shop "elsewhere" rather than spend their money downtown where they work or in the city in which they live?

The Internet for one. But on-line sales have cut into every business.

How about the environment? What is different about shopping at a large retail center or mall versus downtown?

In our car driven culture, parking is important. But people who live and/or work in Trenton are already here during the day, why run to "the mall" to shop on your lunch break or in the evening/on weekends?

When was the last time you were confronted with panhandlers at the mall? Or had to thread your way through a group of individuals who's 'conversation' was liberally dosed with the "f-bomb" or "N" word? (Note: this author is not a linguistic prude and has been known to use colorful language, but not everywhere, any/all the time).

What about the trash on the sidewalks and in the streets? The Trenton Downtown Association (TDA) crew does a yeoman's job trying to keep up with the seemingly spontaneous re-generation of trash and litter and some days it appears as if they are losing the battle. You don't see the same struggle in the malls and strip centers. For whatever reason, the public seems to take a larger role in helping to "keep things nice" in other shopping districts.

You're not intimidated about braving the "urban wilds" to do a little shopping. Trash, bad language and bums don't bother you. You make it to the front door of the store. Now what?

Is the establishment clean and well kept? Is the staff courteous, helpful, is their speech intelligible? (OK---this one might be a tie. I've had some pretty bad experiences shopping in mall stores for these very reasons).

Are displays thought out and tasteful? Or does it look like a flea market stall?

Does the "background music" greet you from a half a block away?

And we can't forget the issue of Crime. Interesting thing, crime. There are facts and there are perceptions. And there is crime everywhere...even at "the mall."

We've all heard that car thieves love to do their shopping at the suburban retail centers. Those acres of parking lots are like a candy store.

I've personally witnessed fights at Quaker Bridge Mall and know of people who've had purses stolen while sitting in a movie theatre. Oh there is crime.

But somehow, the perception is that the suburban retail/dining/entertainment experience is safer. And that's where the money flows.

Now, I'm not a big fan of chains, franchises or the like. I believe we have to nurture and support as many local businesses as we can. Small businesses are a key indicator of an area's economic health. The men and women who own and operate local, independent businesses put it on the line everyday. Their risk is greater because they don't have the deep resources of the chains. They have to compete on price, service, marketing clout.

Foot Locker coming to Trenton might just be a positive sign. If they maintain the level of service and keep their store presentable, it might just set a higher standard for our Downtown.

If the staff of the local Foot Locker becomes part and parcel of the community, it might make TDA's task of boosting the overall success of the district easier. Other businesses might follow in their footsteps. Downtown could come alive again.

To my way of thinking, our vacant retail space should not become filled with chains and franchises (that's what the Malls are for). But if one or two locate here and raise the retail bar enough for others to seize the opportunity, then its a step in the right direction.

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