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« The Democratization of Design | Main | Retail Rewired: Physical and Digital Collide »

The Art & Science of Shopping: Walkable Urbanism and the Department Store

Introduction of a vending machine to sell small electronics. It's like an alien landed on the second floor between intimates and young men's. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Jordan.

I grew up in what Chris Leinberger calls "Driveable Sub-urbanism." That label pretty much describes the entire state of NJ actually. The development of a light rail system from Hoboken to Jersey City was instrumental in creating the emerging walkable urbanism there, as well as making those communities not only viable but highly desired by NYC commuters who still want to live in NJ (after all, we have the better view).

This type of transit-oriented development is revitalizing secondary markets like Dallas, where I'm delighted to report (having witnessed this transformation firsthand during the course of my relationship with Neiman Marcus there since 1993) continues to evolve into an excellent example of walkable urbanism. Abandoned corporate office towers have become residential lofts, and people walk their dogs down the streets in the evening.

One problem facing such developments is a lack of accessible retail options. In today’s retail environment, department stores can't just land in secondary markets because of the large footprints they need. The stores that do exist in downtowns—be it St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Dallas—are legacy stores that have survived the heydays and the downturns of their surroundings.

The Aggies shop comprises a small offering at the escalator landing. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Jordan.

For example, the Grand Dame of the Neiman Marcus chain sits in the heart of downtown Dallas. It stands frozen in time, with no significant remodels performed over its 100+ years of existence. And according to Neiman Marcus executives, that's exactly the way their customers like it. But the customers they received the feedback from happen to drive there, and have since their mothers took them shopping. The new locals don't relate to that history, and I would suspect they do not frequent the location because of its dated interior (besides the price point).

While this store is well maintained, it is nonetheless quite tired in its décor, and while far better than most, it exemplifies a problem faced by many older department stores situated in walkable urban areas. Shoppers seek compelling experiences, and these downtown stores in secondary markets seldom get remodel funds like those allocated to their siblings in the bigger cites, like NY and Chicago. So while the shopper is willing, the motivation is weak.

I recently found myself in Houston on business and needed an item I had left at home. A Macy's was within a walkable distance, so I walked from my hotel to the store, thinking this was highly convenient. Then I entered the store. Convenient, yes. Compelling, no. This store had definitely not seen remodel funds since the '80s. The interior was dismal. I sought my item and then made an uncharacteristically swift departure.

“Localization” manifested as two overscaled images leaning against a somewhat blank wall. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Jordan.

So all this said, I certainly believe that department stores can definitely benefit from transit-oriented developments coupled with walkable urbanism. It would signal a return to what made department stores so successful in the first place: the ability to offer convenience. After all, isn't living in an urban environment all about convenience? You walk to work; you have a million great restaurants at your disposal and world class cultural institutions at your fingertips.

The reason department stores won't benefit from walkable urbanism is because retailers think that if they open their doors, "they will come." That's not enough. They need to build the "it" first—create the compelling environment—and then "they will come." Department stores, if they're smart, will redirect and channel remodel funds into these forgotten flagships to become not only the convenient place to shop, but a vital part of the new community fabric.

Kathleen Jordan
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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Reader Comments (1)

I especially like the "localization" photo, definitely lacking the "magic". On the subject of walkable urbanism, I recently endured a meeting with a retail center developer who fought hard against locating a transit stop next to the shopping center, stating that it would bring the "urban misfits" to the mall. This is the mentality that we are battling with regional centers and probably similar feelings from its anchors. Regional centers exist because of the car, and will always do so. Only time will tell, but the recent move of people back into the cities will drive the need for a more urban model that will thrive because of transit and not be afraid of it.
04.24.2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeno Yun

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