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Is Clustering Similar Stores an Answer?

by on 03/19/2012

Before malls, warehouse stores, and numerous discount department stores, a small-city downtown could be your main shopping center, with trips to the mall reserved for jeans that fit just right, a pair of shoes, or a dress for a special occasion. In 1985, when we moved to the Edmonds bowl, we bought everything, from drug prescriptions to Halloween costumes, faucet-repair parts and lawn seeds, had our shoes resoled and our lawnmower sharpened, without leaving our downtown. If you’ve lived here a while, you saw most of these downtown shops disappear over the years.

I’m grateful for, and believe that Edmonds can sustain, most of the high-quality shops we’ve retained. However, unless or until (take your pick) the price of gas doubles or triples, the variety of shops that Edmonds and other small towns once enjoyed isn’t returning, and it would be futile to try to expect that.

If you’re a typical shopper, you want good prices and lots of choices. Where do you find lots of choices? The Mall — anchor stores, Nordstrom and Macys, surrounded by bunches of fashion shops. Want cheaper but nice clothing, or housewares and sporting equipment? Pennys, Target, Big 5, Ross, Costco, and many others. Hate to fight traffic, bad weather, and other shoppers? Amazon. How does Edmonds retail compete with choice and price? Not easily. Does that mean that small retail is doomed in Edmonds? That all retail storefronts must eventually be taken over by services? I hope not and don’t think so.

Drive down the northern Edmonds portion of Highway 99. You’ll see numerous auto dealers, new and used, which have survived the economic disaster of these last few years. These dealers are clustered, giving shoppers choice, competition, and convenience. Farther south on 99, you can shop at a cluster of Asian-themed markets. In better economic times, Edmonds was the destination for antiques, with shops all over town.

Clusters of similar shops don’t suffer from competition, they thrive on it, by being a destination for non-locals. That’s why stores pay big rents at malls or busy big-city downtowns. Rather than trying to fill vacant Edmonds storefronts with one of everything, why not develop Edmonds’s identity as the place to go for what’s already selling? As mentioned, on 99 it’s cars and Asian goods. Downtown, it’s women’s fashion, jewelry, housewares, travel (thanks, Rick!), art, and artistic crafts.

Leaving aside professional services (which don’t thrive on competition), what other cluster of products sells in Edmonds? Sports bars and small restaurants with happy hours (I think we’re close to saturation), and prepared food accompanied by entertainment, sold in a public marketplace — the Taste, the Father’s Day Arts Fair, and the Summer Market. I can’t think of anything that could get started quicker, and bring in steady revenue, than a year-around market — indoors, during the bad-weather months.

Edmonds needs increased revenue now, not just in 10 to 15 years, when a mega-project could get completed. If anything is the near answer, the evidence points to clustering similar retail, and a year-around market based on fresh and prepared food and causal entertainment.

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