Retail businesses have been on a roller-coaster ride since last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to close their doors. A year afterward, with vaccination rates climbing, the path forward for retail businesses is coming into clearer focus.
Cindy Fox, a marketing lecturer in UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business and an expert in retail businesses, and Varian Shurm, Community Manager for Charlotte’s Camp North End, a 76-acre historic site transformed into a hub for innovation and creativity, join to discuss this shift in retail.
I’m Jeffrey Jones, Director of Executive Education and Professional Development at UNC Charlotte, and this is Charlotte Business Buzz. Connecting the Queen City’s business community … From UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business.... This is Charlotte Business Buzz. Retail businesses have been on a roller-coaster ride since last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to close their doors. A year afterward, with vaccination rates climbing, the path forward for retail businesses is coming into clearer focus. Joining us today to discuss these next steps are Cindy Fox, a marketing lecturer in UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business and an expert in retail businesses, and Varian Shurm, Community Manager for Charlotte’s Camp North End, a 76-acre historic site transformed into a hub for innovation and creativity. Cindy and Varian, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having us.
Many stores were struggling even before the pandemic. What have been the trends in retail over the past few years leading up to COVID-19?
More stores need to be going omnichannel which means that they can provide services to the customers online, in the store, in the kiosk, any way the consumer wants to interact with the store and not all retailers were transitioning to a strong omni-channel presence. So there are people who want to look in a store and then buy it online, there are people who want to look first online and then go into a store, so there should be a smooth integration between both experiences and not all retailers were able to offer that. Of course with the pandemic more people have really invested in their online or digital presence and more retailers are able to provide that integration now which is definitely how you're going to be successful post pandemic.
Have there been any other challenges with the pandemic that are sort of accelerating the change?
People don't want to go into stores so - some people don't, I have shopped kind of regularly throughout the pandemic and I see people in the store every time I go and then some stores - we don't have a Wegmans here in Charlotte but there's a Wegmans by my father's house - and I went there one morning and even during the pandemic there were like a hundred people waiting out front to shop at Wegmans and Trader Joe's always has lines out front, so there's some retailers that obviously are going to be ones that people want to - they want to go pick up their avocado and they want to look at the meat - and other retailers who have generic types of products are having a difficult time. People can just buy them online, and you know I buy from Amazon, they've got a really good variety and a lot of times they have things that are not available in the store, so it just makes it easier. Where stores are going is they need to provide an experience and maybe fewer things in the store that - not racks of clothes but a few examples and people can buy the color and the size that they want and have it either picked up later at the store or shipped to their house.
Varian, since 2017 Camp North End has been expanded from a humble development to housing more than 40 tenants today. How would you describe Camp North End?
So Camp North End is a 76 acre historic industrial site where originally back in the 20s the Ford Motor Company built Model Ts and Model As then in the 40s the US Army used it as a quartermaster depot, providing supplies to basic training camps all over the southeast and then fast forward to the cold war - Army was still there building missiles they called it CAMP - Charlotte Army Missile Plant and the history is a little less exciting after that - Eckard used it as a distribution center for 40 years and that brings us to 2016 when ATCO Properties, the company I work for, acquired the site and set a whole new vision for it to reuse all these amazing old buildings and spaces in between the buildings to be essentially a hub for creativity and innovation - really like a commercial center for this part of town, the North End, which is just one mile northwest of uptown. The goal is to reuse a lot of these beautiful old buildings and turn them into class a office, studio space, restaurants, shops, plazas, and parks - eventually residential, hospitality - like a hotel - really, I mean it's 76 acres - the equivalent of 14 square blocks uptown, so essentially what would you expect to see in the heart of uptown - what kinds of amenities would you expect to see. We're essentially developing a little neighborhood unto itself, but really at the heart of it it's a community of creative people and business owners, artists, entrepreneurs, it's a very special place.
So retail, particularly small local businesses, are a cornerstone of the camp. What benefits does the site offer that a traditional retail space may not?
From a purely physical standpoint, the site is so large and open air - I mentioned it was 76 acres - it's so large we've divided it into districts. We currently have three districts that have been developed and open to the public. That's one difference is that it's a large place that's kind of all one thing, with one vision for it, and one overarching community of business owners who can support each other and collaborate and it's one of the few places you can go and feel - at least in my experience - in the last year in Charlotte one of the few places you can go and be outside, socially-distanced, supporting a local business and still feeling responsible and safe. So in the last year that's been a huge advantage for sure, but I think that will remain a special advantage going forward and also just generally the ecosystem of businesses that are there all really complement each other and I mentioned the collaboration - it's really exciting to see what can happen when there's a tech company next door to an art studio, next door to a financial literacy non-profit, and how those people may not have crossed paths in their regular lives outside of this place, but because they're next door to each other they develop relationships, they develop potentially new insights for their own work - they might collaborate - I think really that's the secret sauce of Camp North End.
I would like to add that it's very walkable and there's a lot of parking so as opposed to downtown - you park, you walk, and there's just a energy going on and you turn the corner and it's a totally different landscape and it's a mix of this historical and neon, and signs, and so it's a lot more interesting than walking around in any other part of the city.
That's actually a great point because Charlotte gets a reputation for tearing down old buildings and building shiny new ones. There are old buildings being reused sporadically across Charlotte but they're kind of one-off here and there, this is the largest assemblage of many, many buildings that creates its own district where you can walk through essentially a historic district and be surrounded by old buildings that create public places and the unique architecture just creates a different feeling and a different vibe that I hear every day - oh my gosh, I don't feel like I’m in Charlotte - but this really is a Charlotte history that we - that not many people even know existed, you know Model Ts and the World War II effort - Charlotte was a huge part of that - those major events in American history and it's it's been fun to share with Charlotte a history that people hadn't even discovered yet.
Well they they also have these silver RVs that are just kind of around.
The vintage airstreams?
Yeah, so I was there for the mistletoe nights and just really wonderful lighting people, walking around - of all generations - so kids playing and eating, and I’m pescatarian so lots of options, but I turn around the corner and there's your airstreams and they're serving cocktails and they're all lit up and it was just a really fun night that you just kind of like - oh wow, I can I can enjoy being outside - like you said - just ran into some people and just started talking, which is something you don't really do uptown as much, but you're out here and you're in this fun place and you just feel like - well anybody else who's in this fun place is somebody I want to talk.
Oh, that's awesome. Yes, the vintage airstream. We have these airstream trailers that we've renovated to be small retail spaces and/or office spaces but currently Black Moth Bars is a tenant of one of the airstreams - she does awesome cocktails out of this little vintage trailer, but we've had little PR firms work out of those spaces, TM Studio which is Ally Bank's innovation team - they have a space at Camp North End and they've used one of our trailers for their summer interns, but I mean it's super cool. Back to your question about differentiating factor or special advantage about retail at Camp North End. You could start out you know - Black Moth Bars, a husband-wife duo, testing out a concept in a really small space and they're doing really well and if they continue to succeed maybe they would expand from there. We've got so much space and so many different kinds of spaces to scale and grow in-place essentially, so we've already seen that with some businesses start small at Camp North End and start to grow into more permanent spaces which was a great thing before the pandemic but especially now with businesses closing all around the country those that are small have a light overhead and can be nimble - hopefully will be the ones that can be successful and test out ideas in small spaces with lower risk.
Cindy, how do you see these sorts of developments at Camp North End fostering the future of retail in Charlotte?
Well there's definitely - interesting at Camp North End because they do have some small retailers, they've got some larger stores, but that whole kind of vibe for local is there. I've known Varian for a long time but my students in the strategy class did their capstone project on Camp North End last spring and so I had like 150 students working on this project pre-pandemic - most of them went down there and walked around and they want to work there! So that's the place that combines - you work, but then you take a break and you go get some food and sit around and meet people who are in the other buildings like Varian talked about, then you go back to work, and then you go work out somewhere and then you go back to work and then you meet your friends and have a drink and then I guess eventually you could go back to your house or your apartment there, so it's what people are looking for now in their career is not that they're sitting at a desk all day long but that they're interacting with people and I mean I've taught creativity for many years and the essence of creativity is really interacting with people who have a different perspective than you do. You know Steve Jobs - he designed a building so that people would have to interact with each other and that's essentially what Camp North End is you get your lunch you sit down at a table, somebody comes up who's got a different point of view and as Vairan was talking about - businesses that are creative next to somebody who's a quantitative - and sometimes they can find out - oh well this is the way I solve this problem because now I see it from a different perspective. So I think it's just the essence of where we need to be moving in order to be solving some of the big problems out there.
Yes, that's a great point and I think traditionally parts of our society have been sort of segmented - maybe siloed is the right word and I think where it's heading is things that are much more interdisciplinary or things that are co-located. So one of our big promises of Camp North End is that if you work here, you will be holistically healthier - your social health, your mental health, your physical health, and when you are happy and healthy as a person you're more creative, you're more productive for your business, and then your business does better. Actually Camp North End is one of the first four developments in North America to receive Fitwell’s community certification and Fitwell is essentially like if LEED certification is for a building's sustainability Fitwell’s is for the health and wellness of the occupants of the building so we are designing towards that. Whether you work at Camp North End or you're visiting Camp North End, we are encouraging healthy lifestyles and that includes social health, mental health, physical health, all of the above - so that's something that is near and dear to our hearts and that's what we're working towards and I think that's where development is headed, so mixed use is definitely aligned with that.
We’ll be right back with Cindy Fox and Varian Shurm in just a moment on Charlotte Business Buzz. Fifty years ago, UNC Charlotte launched the first graduate program in the region for working business professionals. Today, this nationally ranked part-time MBA continues to drive business in Charlotte and beyond. Whether you’re just starting out in the business world or contemplating your next step in an established career, the UNC Charlotte MBA is designed to meet your individual needs and goals. Learn more at mba.uncc.edu. Alright, welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with Camp North End community manager Varian Shurm and Belk College lecturer Cindy Fox. Cindy, just a few weeks ago Charlotte-based Belk stores announced they were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. How do you see this affecting Charlotte's retail landscape?
Well I’ve been asked that a lot lately. I think Belk really dug themselves into a hole. They have a lot of debt from the buyout but they have a strong brand recognition in this area, and they have the promise of coming back and being a stronger retailer than they have been in the past. They need to work on their omni-channel presence which they didn't really invest in previously but I think - people think oh bankruptcy, all the stores will close, that's the end of Belks. I think they need to come back with a message that they did this on purpose in order to come out stronger, in order to shed some of their debt and be able to focus on the customer experience. They have big stores, they've got knowledgeable sales people who've been there for years, and they can provide services in the physical store that people can't get online and that's what a physical store needs to do. Have people come in and now they have - well they need some more high-tech things - they have these mirrors now that you can stand in front of and when you're trying on something and they'll put different backgrounds there or they'll do different lighting and that's what they need. So you go into Belk with your friend and now it's post pandemic and there's an event going on and you want to buy an outfit and your friends are there and there's a knowledgeable salesperson and you've got your interactive mirror and it's an experience, and retailers need to provide experiences for people to want to go to the physical store. That ability - I read the other day it's a retail choreography - being able to get that experience feel very seamless between all the places that Belk’s footprint is.
It's interesting from our conversation so far these two themes seem to keep coming back - destination and experience and I think back to the history of malls in America - you know these big spaces - enclosed spaces - and now there seems to be this arc to these same kind of stores in an outdoor space and then when I hear about Camp North End it's kind of taking that maybe to the next step which is this repurposed, integrated neighborhood. So it's the destination and the experience is broader and more immersive. Does that seem to resonate with you two?
Yeah, I think the idea of a mall, it feels like it's one thing. You're corralled through stores with the intention of buying something. I think what we're doing is much more diverse than that - like it's a wider variety of uses that are happening there - and I think in all things diversity begets resilience, so there's office, studio, food and beverage, shops, non-profit community centers, and on and on. So I think there's a million reasons to come out there and when you put it all together it creates a much more resilient kind of space and a much more authentic space too versus being all in on one thing that if you can no longer patronize that thing because of a pandemic or preferences change and that huge investment in a mall is out is now outdated - I think it's I guess wiser to diversify what you're offering.
Well I think one of the things that I really love about Camp North End is there's an element of surprise. You turn the corner and it's a totally different landscape and there's a sculpture there and you're like - oh what is that then let me kind of explore that - and there's a pop-up and somebody's selling something that's handmade and looks really interesting and then you have a conversation about, with the person that created this jewelry or whatever, like how did you get down this path. People want to interact with other people who are bringing a unique perspective to their own, that they can explore and kind of connect with the world - especially now the world outside of my house or the world outside - I think I've read several people were like I'm tired of the people in my house, I want to meet some more people. There's a lot of discussion that post pandemic it's going to be more like the roaring 20s - that people are going to go wow I’ve been cooped up for a year, I'm going crazy. So I certainly feel like that I want to keep challenging myself and keep interacting in a way that grows my creativity.
With vaccination rates climbing and hospitalization rates declining many of us are looking forward to a brighter future post-pandemic. Varian, what are you most excited about for Camp North End in the next 6-12 months?
The thing I'm most excited about is the beginning of phase two which - so far we started in 2017 with phase zero quote unquote, and that was really just - do some very tactical, bootstrapped activation to get people out to enjoy some events. Then phase one was renovating most of the smaller buildings on-site to be filled with small businesses - you know dozens of small businesses - in our first large class site office space so taking one of those giant warehouses and turning it into an office. Now phase two begins and we're on to renovating more of those warehouses to be offices and actually starting to lease that office space to businesses who are looking for 45,000 square feet. So, all this to say, I'm most excited for some of the spaces that have been leased for those office tenants to actually move in and for so long we've had a few hundred people working on-site but now with these new office users coming in, it'll be thousands plus on a daily basis and I think that's just gonna, in a good way, really just change the atmosphere of the site. Bringing lots of new activity, people who are coming on a consistent basis, and of course that's great for all the small businesses and retailers who are there today. I'm most excited for those guys to all move in as soon as vaccines are distributed en mass and people are feeling good about being in groups inside again and then also at the end of this year we're going to break ground on our first apartment complex which will take 18 months to develop, but between those two things I think just continuing to grow and building on all the success we've had so far, in a small way this is like turning a page to something really exciting.
So I'll turn that question to you, Cindy, in a broader frame. What are you excited about in the retail industry in the next 6,12, 18 months?
Well I think some retailers obviously have struggled through the pandemic - many were making investments in their omnichannel presence. So strong retailers are going to be ones who can meet the consumer wherever the consumer wants to be and that's really important because retailing needed to do that, and the pandemic just kind of accelerated that transition but as people live lives where they want to have a lot of play time, which they can do at Camp North End and they want to sit down and talk to people that they just met and kind of explore different lifestyles. So they don't want to spend a lot of time buying kind of essentials that are easily bought from Amazon. When you go into a physical space, it's because they are providing an experience for you, they are solving a problem in a way that helps you to live your life easier. I didn't grow up going to - taking shop or knowing how to build things - but now I have a house and things go wrong in your house and I know I went into Lowe's one time and I said this is the noise that this thing is making, what does that mean. That's really what the retailer needs to provide and there's lots of ways to do this, like IKEA's got ways that you can envision their furniture in your house so there's going to be more high-tech ways of interacting with the customer. I mentioned the mirrors but they're talking about robots, so robots can take clothes to you in the fitting room, or robots can be in the kitchen, flipping hamburgers so that people who want to can move out of kind of a more mundane - cooking hamburger job - and into something that's more challenging. So there's the possibility that more people can live a more full life with technology to take care of some of the routine or mundane parts of their lives.
Well thank you so much for your time today Cindy and Varian.
Thanks for having me!
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