Sunday, September 03, 2000

Shoppers grow weary of city's retail deficiency

Cincinnatians must seek out fashion-forward merchandise

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jackie Rohling has been in Cincinnati just eight months, and already she is suffering an ailment common among the city's fashion conscious: Merchandisus inferioritus.

        The symptoms are:

        • An inability to find distinctive merchandise.

 1999 retail sales (in billions):

Top five markets
  • Chicago: $75.34.
  • Los Angeles/Long Beach: $74.65.
  • Houston: $48.5.
  • Washington, D.C. (Md./Va./W.Va.): $47.74.
  • Philadelphia (Pa./N.J.): $46.8.

Top 10 cities in the Ohio/Pennsylvania/Kentucky/Indiana markets and ranking:
  • Pittsburgh — $23.58 (18).
  • Cleveland/Lorain/Elyria — $21.85 (21).
  • Indianapolis — $19.92 (26).
  • Columbus — $18.76 (28).
  • Cincinnati — $16.3 (36).
  • Dayton/Springfield — $11.19 (54).
  • Louisville — $8.99 (62).
  • Harrisburg/Lebanon/Carlisle, Pa. — $8.49 (68).
  • Toledo — $8.1 (72).
  • Akron — $7.99 (73).

 Source: MapInfoData

        • Fatigue from visiting other cities or catalogs to shop.

        • Frustration at seeing the same merchandise in every store.

        These signs are endemic of this area. Cincinnati is a Midwestern, mainstream market, and the merchandise here reflects the broad view of area consumers. With a few exceptions, shopping here is safe, predictable and value-driven.

        There are the obvious cases — people who are extra tall or extra small, very large or very short. But over the years a different, familiar whine has wailed from the lips of area consumers: Local retail is soooo boring.

        “There's just certain stores here, and that's all you have,” said Ms. Rohling, a Chicago-area native who moved to Reading in December. “It's not even that I'm into upscale, I just want different stores that you see in larger cities.”

        If local retail is inferior to that of other midsized cities, it might be because of lower spending trends here. Greater Cincinnati in 1999 ranked 36th in the nation for retail spending — behind Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus and Indianapolis. Greater Cincinnati consumers spent $16.3 billion in 1999, according to data collected by MapInfoData of New York. In Columbus, consumers spent more than $18.7 billion.

        Area retail experts and developers acknowledge that Cincinnati lags behind like-sized cities when it comes to shopping selections. And some popular merchants have passed at a chance to build here.

        “It's not a forward market,” said Stan Eichelbaum, president of local retail consulting firm Marketing Developments Inc. “Cincinnati is conservative in everything it does, so why would it not fall to fashion?”

  Do you think efforts to find a certain style, brand or size are fruitless? If you are among Cincinnatians who think their relatively reasonable needs are not being met, we want to hear from you.
  The same goes for shoppers who might want to share the name of a local retail gem that meets their needs. Merchants also might reply if they think they meet shopper needs.
  Some responses may be used in a follow-up article to appear in this section in a few weeks. Please e-mail responses with a phone number to or mail to Shopper's Needs/Business Desk, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, OH 45202. No phone calls please.

        Other factors help in compromising the local retail mix. Cincinnati does not draw enough out-of-town tourists to attract the high-end merchants found in New York, San Francisco or Chicago. Many neighborhoods here do not have the space to develop large retail areas that would hold both the average and the unique retailer. And in the past 10 years, the retail scene has suffered a period of stagnation.

        “This was never a productive area for high fashion,” said Carl Correa, a Colerain Township resident who used to represent fashion designers around the world. “Good clothes, interesting clothes, are a place to go. Where do you go in Cincinnati?”

        Cincinnati might not attract the same merchants as Chicago or New York, which are larger and more affluent. But the Queen City also lacks merchants found in other towns of the same size. Charleston, S.C., has Gucci and Chanel shops; Cleveland has a Neiman Marcus boutique; and Providence, R.I., has its Crate and Barrel.

        Mark Fallon, director of leasing and brokerage for Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate, said there just aren't many good locations for stores.

        “I think right now, you'll find more fashion opportunities in Indiana, and starting to emerge in Columbus,” he said.

        Mr. Fallon said Crate and Barrel and the Cheesecake Factory restaurant declined to open in Rookwood Commons, developed by Jeffrey Anderson. Both retailers thought the market was too small. In the past decade or so, several upscale merchants have failed here, including Bonwit Teller, Armani Exchange and Ralph Lauren.

        Mr. Eichelbaum said the problem had been exacerbated by a lull in development, which set in around 1990 after Forest Fair Mall, Tri-County Mall and Kenwood Towne Centre either opened or expanded.

        Most development that did occur in the years following catered to the big-box boom — value centers such as Meijer, Target and Best Buy. A national boom in such value stores in fact helped diminish the entire country's fashion-consciousness, Mr. Eichelbaum surmised.

        So in some ways it is not just Cincinnati, he said. The whole nation is less interested in fashion.

        “I think it's the manufacturers rather than the retailers,” said Bill Lee, a freelance writer and editor from Eastgate. “When you walk into a men's department in any store, you've got two choices, brown or black.”

        The good news is local retailing continues to diversify. Rookwood Commons introduced new merchants to town and Nordstrom has committed to downtown and Deerfield Township.

        But given Greater Cincinnati's deep Midwestern roots, the prospects for a complete recovery from shopper frustration are still uncertain.

- Shoppers grow weary of city's retail deficiency
Businessmen lack suitable quality, prices
Colorful fabrics hard to find
Selection miniscule in plus-size clothing

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