Discount Diva: There’s still hope for downtown retail

Have you heard that the three boutiques inside the Shops at HarborCenter will close at the end of September?

A spokesman for Pegula Sports and Entertainment said last week the company is having “ongoing discussions” with potential tenants and hopes to soon unveil new retail offerings for the site. But by the end of September, the toy, gift and candy stores that have been there for two years will close.

If you didn’t know the stores were there to begin with, that’s OK. You’re not the only one who had no idea there is a small, ground-floor retail strip tucked inside the southwest corner of the complex. It’s hard to see the shops are there, even if you’re standing directly across the street from them – as more than 2 million visitors to Canalside have done during the two years the shops have been open.

Even if that VIP beer tent wasn’t blocking the view and there wasn’t a fence separating the crowds from the indoor mini-mall, the shops struggled with poor access, bad visibility and signage that just didn’t work.

I, for one, am going to miss them when they’re gone. I often walk down to Fowler’s on my lunch break and buy one or two dark chocolate salty turtles for dessert. Red Siren has saved my butt more than once on last-minute birthday gifts. And I just recently picked up some child-sized, metal rakes for my kids at Clayton’s. (Gift wrapped!)

When news of the closures came out, it was schadenfreude city among Buffalo detractors. They took it as proof that the revitalization of downtown is a mirage, and that retail cannot survive outside the suburbs.

But even levelheaded people are wondering what the shops’ closures mean for the more extensive retail offerings planned by private developer Douglas Jemal. If Buffalo can’t support a tiny pocket of stores, how is it going to keep more ambitious retail projects alive at Seneca One Tower? Especially in an age when brick-and-mortar stores are being walloped by online shopping.

Everyone thinks they have the answers, but no one really knows.

As a retail reporter for the past 10 years, I really do believe it’s only a matter of time that retail will take hold in downtown Buffalo. It’s just a question of when and where.

People want to live downtown. When people come, retail follows.

That’s not to say that new city residents won’t have to learn new shopping habits. It may be a while before they walk out their front doors to shop instead of hopping into their cars and heading for Niagara Falls Boulevard. And it may be a while before the selection downtown is varied enough to entice them to do that.

That’s why drawing exclusive retail is going to be key. People may not be excited about a couple of gift shops in a hotel, but a downtown Container Store or Crate & Barrel would be a different story entirely. Stores like that would draw people who work and live downtown, but they would also make downtown shopping a destination for people who love those brands.

Just because the first stores at HarborCenter didn’t make it, it doesn’t mean no one will ever be able to make retail work downtown.

That can be hard to believe in a community still traumatized by the Bass Pro saga, and where the Main Place Mall stands as a hulking reminder of retail done wrong downtown.

But unlike “solutions” foisted upon the city by politicians trying to make retail happen, lasting downtown stores will appear naturally as a response to the laws of supply and demand. That will make all the difference.

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