Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Playing the Retail Game

I’m all retailed out.

For the past three days I have spent almost all of my time at on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, talking to retailers, brokers, real estate developers, and lots of other folks who are engaged in the business of figuring out where retail stores will be located and how shopping centers will look in the future.

The convention I'm attending on behalf of the city – the 50th annual convention of the International Congress of Shopping Centers (ICSC) -- is huge. Think three or four Pacific View Malls, swarming with half the population of Ventura. It’s so big that the convention center has streets with names – 20th Avenue, D Street – and the biggest retailers and developers have special business cards made up with their Convention Center address on them. Constantly walking from one end of the convention to the other is kind of like – well, kind of like going to the mall.

The main purpose of the convention is for shopping center owners and retail stores to “do deals” with each other on shopping center leases. It’s said that billions of dollars changes hands every year at ICSC. Increasingly, however, cities like Ventura participate too. Last year was the first year we came to ICSC; this year was the first year we had a booth. Deputy Mayor Christy Weir has been here with me, as has Sid White, the city’s Economic Development Manager. City Manager Rick Cole was here on Monday.

Why do we bother? Suffice is to say that as an elected official, you can’t do your job well if you don’t understand retail trends and how they affect your town and your finances.

Sales tax is very important to our city budget, and retail stores are very important to our economic development strategy all over town, from downtown to the auto centers.. Hotels are important to our city and our budget as well – we are a tourist town, after all, and hotel developers and operators also participate in ICSC. This year, Jim Luttjohann, the head of our visitor and convention bureau, came with us and he’s been great at dealing with the hotel people.

In 3½ years in office, I’ve learned that you can’t sit back and wait for retailers to come to you – but by the same token you can’t simply give them everything they ask for, either. You have to know what you want and be aggressive in finding the developers and retailers who can help you meet your goals (and also be aggressive in deciding what retailers and what business deals you don't want). But you also have to know the market and the trends, because your goals have to be realistic. In other words, you have to be very, very savvy about what’s going on. And because retailing is so faddish, you have to work constantly to stay current.

So we’ve spent a lot of time talking to shopping center developers and owners. For example, ICSC is the best time to talk to higher-ups at MaceRich, which owns Pacific View Mall. The convention is a good place to target retailers and hotels that we think we might want in Ventura and understand how they do business. We’ve talked to a lot of people, for example, about the retail opportunities that exist on the vacant land at the Ventura Auto Center. (Representatives of the Auto Center’s landowners, Hofer Enterprises, have also been here this week.)

Most of all, we’ve soaked up knowledge just by being around. There’s a lot of talk about mixed use. It has become a popular topic here at ICSC in the last couple of years, and we’ve had a fair amount of traffic at our booth from people who are interested in it. And even though most of the retailers represented here are national chains, there’s more and more talk about local businesses that can complement the chains in downtowns, at malls, and even at strip shopping centers.

Unlike the retailers and the shopping center owners, we at the city don’t come home with “deals in the bag”. But we do come home with leads, insight, and a stronger sense of the kinds of strategic decisions we have to make to stay competitive and use retailing to create a better community. And retailers and developers all over the country go home with a better sense of what kind of a community Ventura is and how to provide us with the retail and mixed-use developments we want.

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