Downtown NJ panel: Brick-and-mortar is essential, just make good decisions

Gabrielle Saulsbery//October 21, 2019//

Downtown NJ panel: Brick-and-mortar is essential, just make good decisions

Gabrielle Saulsbery//October 21, 2019//

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Despite the hum and chatter about Amazoning and competition with e-commerce in the retail world, omnichannel personal care business owner Chelsea Selby wants other purveyors to know that brick-and-mortar retailers are immune to some of the troubles that e-retailers face.

As social media becomes a pay-to-play environment and retailers who focus on it grow frustrated with the challenge of reaching their core audience, brick-and-mortar retailers don’t experience the same shift.

Selby, owner of Witch Baby Soap has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram. The app wants her to pay to reach those followers though, she said. Still, online is looked at as the future of retail, and broad-scale national closings dissuade others from joining the in-real-life retail game.

“It’s almost like a boogeyman. People are afraid to start a brick-and-mortar business, but it’s essential,” she said.

Selby’s business has seen growth and success online, but her brick-and-mortar store has been an integral part of her success.

She and others spoke on a panel about growing and retaining downtowns at the Downtown New Jersey conference in Bloomfield Oct. 18.

Downtown New Jersey is an organization comprised of planners, economic development professionals, and business owners dedicated to the consistent growth of New Jersey’s downtown areas.

For retailers looking to enter the brick-and-mortar space, Option 1 Realty Group Vice President Melvin Sykes advised against being too eager to get a spot that they settle for just anything.

“You can’t just see a vacant space and not do your research on it,” Sykes said, who is based in Newark. “Know your area, and know your landlord, too. If your landlord is being difficult on this, he’ll be difficult during your whole lease.”

In attracting customers, retailers and the towns they’re located in should conduct audits of both inside and outside spaces, according to Larisa Ortiz, managing director at neighborhood strategy and design firm Streetsense. If the market is there but customers aren’t coming, what’s the hold up?

If outside, it could be too many curb cuts, she explained—not comfortable to walk. Or if it’s a street directional issue, perhaps it’s not that great to drive there. On the inside of a store, what potential red flags is the retailer noticing?

“There are a lot of businesses that no longer see the problems in their own stores. They’re blind to the dusty shelves, that they’re half empty. They don’t even see the dead mouse in the window. These are real stories,” explained Ortiz.

Store audits are a helpful tool, she said—an outside source coming in and evaluating the environment.

Eric Maywar, economic development specialist for the City of Trenton Division of Economic Development, touts a secret shopper program, something he said works in stores in Trenton to get honest evaluations of how and why they’re doing the business they’re doing regardless of what business data about the local market says they should be doing.

“People think data is the answer and the solution. I work in data every day, and I can tell you most data is crap. At the end of the day, it’s one piece of the pie of information,” Ortiz said.