Ten Ingredients Found in Successful Downtowns



Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP and Carl Baxmeyer, AICP


Traveling across the Midwest today, one encounters many prosperous downtown shopping areas in small communities. However in equal number, one stumbles into small communities where the downtown retail buildings are, maybe, half occupied and little, if any, economic prosperity shows.

Once can easily ask the questions: “Why is one successful and other not?” Why are retail and services businesses in one downtown thriving and in another withering? Is there some magic ingredient in one downtown which leads business and property owners to develop successful attractions that draw customers to shop that is absent in another?

For more than twenty-five years, we have worked with many government and business leaders seeking to reinvigorate the economic vitality within downtowns of smaller communities. Many lessons learned twenty-five years ago have not changed. While obviously population and future growth heavily favor success, we find business owners and local governmental officials can, and often do, make the difference between a thriving and withering downtown.

We have identified ten ingredients that contribute to successful downtowns. We offer these as a measurement tool to evaluate success and as a pathway to organize a downtown revitalization effort.


1. Customer Focus
Successful downtowns look at the customer in a different way from others. Rather than viewing the customer “as the opposing team player,” successful downtowns view the customer as a team member who defines the merchandise and products which business owners need to supply. Using the team approach, businesses ask what goods and services are needed and then stock them. They take one step further and show the availability of these products through advertising to those whom many not shop frequently in the downtown.

2. Tell A Story Everyone Knows
Successful downtowns have “cheerleaders” who promote excitement and enthusiasm about the downtown shopping experience to customers and business owners. They make the shared vision of the current level of success widely known and serve as the spokesperson for plans that will make the downtown even more exciting to shoppers.

3. Clearly Communicated Shopping Experience
Every shopper has an expectation of what shopping will be like in a particular downtown. Close and easy parking; friendly sales staff; picturesque stores; and wide variety of merchandise for example express part of the shopping experience. Successful downtowns document the shopping experience and tell others about it. They go to great lengths to retain and improve the customers’ perception of their personal shopping experience.

4. Value Driven Service
The mission of the downtown is to provide goods and services at a value acceptable to the customer while making a profit for the individual business. Much has been written about impersonal mass merchandisers, catalogues and Internet firms and the growing desire of some shoppers for a personal service shopping experience. Successful downtowns have identified their market niche and are known to provide a higher level of value for their services within the bounds of their market niche.

5. Brick And Mortar To Support the Mission
Every successful downtown has a “brick and mortar” improvement project underway, or “in the making.” The image of a successful downtown is, in part, displayed by incremental completion of “brick and mortar” improvements, be they small landscape plantings or large streetscape improvements. Successful downtowns plan and carry-out a program of physical improvements that show government and private owner dedication to “fix-up” and revitalize the physical infrastructure necessary to support private business investment.

6. Reliance on Customer Attraction
All success stems from customers and the success of a downtown comes from attracting customers to the downtown for social and shopping needs. Successful downtowns never get caught in the “that’s the way we do things” syndrom and are always looking for new ways to make people visit the downtown for social and shopping reasons. They want customers to first think to shop in the downtown and shop downtown more often, even as part of a trip for some social activity.

7. A Long Term Customer Loyalty Program
It is a fact of modern retailing that “customer loyalty” is rewarded. Preferred customer cards, direct mail special discount offers, special sales hours, and reward points are but a few of the incentives offered to loyal customers. Successful downtowns have learned a lesson about “customer loyalty” and provide a loyalty reward or discount program for shopping in the downtown.

8. Feedback on Performance
How well we doing? What is our customers’ satisfaction rating this month? Is it better than last month? Is it better than last year? These are a few of the continual questions that successful downtown sponsors should answer. A successful downtown will establish a mechanism periodically to monitor customer satisfaction. They identify progress and make changes designed to increase future customer satisfaction.

9. Dedicated Sales Staff Training
Being a downtown sales person is an important position. In successful downtowns being a sales person is more than knowing how to “ring-up” the sale but also to be a tourist guide, problem solver and referral agent. In successful downtowns, they organize a formal training program to give information to sales personnel better to inform visitors and regular customers about other shopping that can be done and the latest social events that will bring then back into the downtown.

10. Good Business Rations - Cross Selling
Today, mass merchandisers provide a variety of goods within their stores. They adopt the principle that once the shopper enters the store they will find everything they need under one roof. Successful downtowns have adopted a variation on this theme, “shop in our downtown and you will find (almost) every thing that you will need.” The goal, identical to the mass merchandiser, is to get the customer to do all (or most ) of their shopping within the downtown with downtown sales staff making reference to goods and services available from other downtown businesses.

Twenty-five years ago we identified that successful downtowns were composed of business and property owners who had a compulsion for success. Lenders and governmental leaders who believed in the need for a successful downtown supported them and were willing to accept a long-term dedication to the compulsion of the private interests. All parties took risks; some risks were clearly “winners” others clearly “losers.” However, with each success or loss the process narrowed choices aiming this compulsion closer toward success.

Success we learned, are “fleet-of-foot. Downtown success is a living growing perception, much like a living organism. As with any living organism it needs continual nourishment for it to grow. Even more important, like a living organism, growth is not an upwardly straight line but filled with starts and stops, rapid jumps and sometimes dies back requiring a little selective pruning. Over time however, the need to grow and survive achieves success much like the compulsion expressed by successful downtown business owners.

Not much has changed during the past twenty-five years. Using the ten ingredients will help organize and achieve success. Clearly however, the compulsion for success, is single handily the magic elixir that nourishes the long term success.

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