APPARENTLY, THE SUBURBS ARE SEXYAGAIN. Cynicscalledit“Suburbistan” or “Suburgatory,” a barren wasteland where culture was
dead, people above the age of 35 lived
out their lives in dull, dated tract homes or
decaying rental apartments and walked the
local mall like zombies.
Very colorful descriptions—that might
have been true at one time. But the reality now is what has been called the “New
Suburbia,” marked by an explosion of
mixed-use developments, multi-unit housing and green space, catering to a broader
demographic that includes Millennials,
Baby Boomers, Empty Nesters and the up-and-coming GenZers.
On top of that we have the “Suburb
Swappers” who are simply moving from
one suburban area to
another that offers more
amenities and a different
way of life. Then there
is what McKinsey & Co.
has termed the “Urban
Elderly,” a segment that
has been virtually ignored
by retailers because of
their lower disposable
incomes—the same factor that is driving them
into areas outside the city.
You can use whatever
buzzwords you like, but this suburban melting pot is a valuable prize for retailers who,
through new locations, store formats, merchandising and services, can combine inner
city retailing with a suburban vibe. Or, as
the Urban Dictionary defines it—Suburbity:
something between a suburb and a city.
The best assessment of the situation for
retailers comes from Adam Ducker, man-
aging director of RCLCO, a real estate con-
sulting firm: “Suburbs isn’t a dirty word.
The reality is that it is where the majority of
people live today,” adding that the percentage of people moving to the suburbs is still
high and it remains the predominant place
for 25-40 year olds to live.
Despite this, not enough developers
and builders are looking at the suburbs for
building affordable housing, which is one
of the factors that will drive people of every
ethnicity from the inner city to the outlying
areas that are starting to urbanize, he says.
However, some developers are scrambling to catch up with demand for reasonably priced rental apartments. This will
attract every demographic including the
much-valued Millennials who are not yet
ready—financially or otherwise—to commit to home ownership.
Hopefully, increased demand will overcome widespread community opposition,
which has even spawned its own vocabulary. In addition to the ever-popular NIMBY
(Not in My Backyard) there are LULUs
(Locally Unwanted Land Uses), CAVEs
(Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and
BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Near
Colorful acronyms aside, this growth is
inevitable and master planned residential
communities with mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented amenities are springing up or are
on the drawing board in suburban areas
across the country. This includes bike-friendly and pedestrian roads for “
walkabil-ity,” shuttle buses and the development of
more Uber-like services.
What implication does this have for the
supermarket industry? Some observers
believe little will change since supermarkets
have been successfully serving the suburbs
since the building boom of the late 1940s
Others believe that new urban formats
will be enough to satisfy new suburban
communities. That is a good start, and the
basic idea can certainly be transplanted. But
retail vacancies on Main Streets are getting
harder to find. Furthermore, just reducing
the footprint is not enough for consumers
who have one foot planted in each world.
In new suburban communities, many
of which have upward of 500 apartments,
miniaturization is key. Even though residents have limited storage space, leaving
out departments or categories is a deadly
mistake. People want full service delis,
meat departments and prepared foods, and
these stores are a perfect outlet for a rotating selection of single- and multi-serve meal
kits that can be picked up in-store rather
Stores in new suburban communities
may also have to adjust their hours and
identities—opening earlier in the morning
to offer breakfast and prepared lunches for
people headed to work and staying open
later in the evening with a fresh selection of
takeout dinners and in-store dining to catch
customers coming from jobs in the city—
some of them walking home from local train
stations instead of driving.
Since some shoppers in these new communities may be retired seniors, reconfiguring stores for shorter shelves and counters,
wide aisles and a staff that truly likes to
engage customers, not avoid them.
However, in this new reality, this new
suburbia, retailers must strive to become
part of the community’s social life, to help
residents engage with each other—not just
the place for a quick shop.
SELLING IN SUBURBIA
Suburbanites want an urban lifestyle without the expense and hardships of city living.
By Len Lewis
Len Lewis is a regular Grocery
Headquarters columnist and
veteran industry journalist.