Shaping the Future of Retail

NLC Report Highlights Ways Cities can Support Future Development

by Emily Langner

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released a report entitled The Future of Cities: Reenvisioning Retail.

NLC’s Center for City Solutions provides research and analysis on key topics and trends important to cities, creative solutions to improve the quality of life in communities, inspiration and ideas for local officials to use in tackling tough issues, and opportunities for city leaders to connect with peers, share experiences and learn about innovative approaches in cities.

According to the report, to prepare their cities for uncertainty ahead, local leaders have had to reenvision their cities in real time as the pandemic presented new difficulties and potential future challenges. Authors Lena Geraghty, Urban Innovation program director, Center for City Solutions; Tina Lee, senior research specialist, Center for City Solutions; and Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director, Center for City Solutions; note that changes in the retail sector, already accelerating previously, have been expedited even more due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it difficult to plan for what comes next, adding that, now more than ever, city leaders have an opportunity to help shape the retail landscape in ways that realize their community’s vision for the future.

The report states that, overall, the retail sector has seen an approximately 10% increase in dollars spent in February 2021 compared to February 2020. However, this rebound has proved uneven. For example, clothing and clothing accessories stores and the electronics and appliances sectors still have not regained their pre-pandemic levels, hovering at 87% and 96% of spending compared with monthly spending from February 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The authors note that the pandemic dramatically expedited the growth of e-commerce, with sales reaching levels anticipated in 2022 in 2020, due to pandemic-driven growth. Retailers with an existing online presence were the ones better prepared to meet the shift toward e-commerce. In the future, they say, successful retail operations will have a few key components including providing flexibility of shopping from the location most convenient for the customer, and enabling personal delivery device operations for groceries and food, self-service kiosks, and semi-autonomous delivery vehicles.

COVID-19 has also reinvigorated cities’ focus on land use, planning and zoning; economic opportunity and jobs; and the best ways to deploy technology to support their communities now and in the future.

The report recommends that cities should consider ways to support more flexible land use, including ensuring zoning regulations are designed with flexibility of use in mind and that changes can happen administratively during times of need; focusing on longer term land use code adjustments on efforts that put people’s use of public space first (allowing for the design of wider sidewalks, touchless pedestrian crossings and car-free streets in future planning efforts, prioritizing the creation of open public spaces over parking, and paying particular attention to who is lacking access and work with community members to determine what amenities would best serve their needs); and decreasing regulatory hurdles for desired, community-beneficial development, including ensuring the business licensing and permitting process is not standing in the way of good retail activity.

On the topic of retail operations, the report says the mix of in-person and online operations is likely to continue in all aspects of commerce, and recommends encouraging the development or repurposing of commercial spaces to meet a variety of retail needs; confirming zoning codes do not restrict home-based businesses and enabling the transition to storefronts for businesses ready to make the leap; and considering land use code definitions of retail, warehouse, and distribution as they relate to commercial and industrial use.

Source: National League of Cities

Also recommended is a focus on ensuring wage and workplace fairness, prioritizing workforce development, and promoting a diverse local business economy, including providing no- or low-interest loans to early-stage entrepreneurs in low-income and historically marginalized areas of the city, and supporting the development of maker spaces and innovation hubs.

The report concludes that, as cities begin to solidify their visions for the future of retail, gaining clarity on who may be impacted, what tools are available to facilitate meaningful change, and what voices need to be at the decision-making table will prove critical, and that cities must be active participants in shaping the future of retail and supporting small businesses, workers and entrepreneurs.

Click here to view the full report.

Emily Langner is editor and staff writer at High-Profile Monthly.