Are chains the secret to a successful downtown?

Like many who work in downtown economic development, I often have people approach me asking, “Why don’t we get a Gap? (Interchangeable, of course, with Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, Loft, Eddie Bauer, or Abercrombie.) It’s a legitimate question. These stores are usually found down the road at the mall and the demographic of the customers often fits well with a particular downtown. However, it may be the wrong question.

First of all, Gap and many of these larger retailers are struggling–not just because of the economy but because of some strategic errors in how they positioned themselves. Ann Taylor and Banana Republic are struggling, mainly due to a few years of dull offerings. Ann Taylor’s new line may help but Banana is still trying to find a niche. Abercrombie focused on casual wear, missing out on the dress and jewelry trend that hit a few years back. They’ve just started adding dresses to their collection. Eddie Bauer’s coming in a distant third with the outdoor/casual set, mainly because they were producing clothing that was too rugged-looking for normal wear but not good enough for actually wearing outdoors. Their stores now carrying the First Ascent Expedition Outfitting suited for actual mountaineering–if the large photo displays of rugged men scaling Everest are any indication. (By the way, the line does appear to be creating some excitement–in the store I visited, this section was by far the most crowded, albeit with people who probably avoid even driving in the snow.)

The economy’s hit local apparel stores as well but the one thing they have going for themselves is that they’re nimble. A good retailer can spot trends and move quickly on them, rather than waiting for the corporate structure of an Ann Taylor to make a course correction. Nationals design their own lines so if it fails, it fails together. Locals buy from a range of lines and, like many in our downtown, they actually make their own apparel or rely on local artisans for their jewelry. If a piece fails it’s not a harbinger of a failed line; instead they can move quickly to the next option.

Nationals certainly have their place and that place is often in a downtown. But let’s not look at them as the saviors of a downtown. Instead, take a look at what makes the locals so successful and figure out a way to franchise that.