Planning director warns Del Ray businesses of potential upheaval ahead

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By Katie Callahan (Photo/Erich Wagner)

Del Ray’s shop-lined streets form the foundation of the neighborhood’s character, but owners of its many independent stores must keep pace with changes in the marketplace, cautioned Alexandria’s outgoing planning chief this month.

“People who are looking for an experience will come here; people who are looking for daily shopping stuff that they need to buy will go to Potomac Yard,” Faroll Hamer, the city’s retiring planning director, told members of the Del Ray Business Association.

And to keep Del Ray’s edge, business owners must recognize the difference in baby boomers’ and millennials’ shopping habits, Hamer said. Whereas aging baby boomers save money for, say, a sofa, millennials have different priorities, ones that retailers must address, Hamer said.

“Millennials would rather go out at night and spend $400 on a bottle of wine with their friends than save up for a new sofa,” Hamer said. “That’s really different. And so retailers have started to provide these experiences.”

With new technology and the “cell phone obsession,” she said local storeowners need to work harder to pull potential customers away from the Internet and into their shops.

Pam Goodfellow, consumer insights director at Prosper Insights and Analytics, said retailers are moving to meet millennials’ needs and preferences.

“Boomers gravitate toward TV, ads and newspapers, whereas millennials are looking at digital channels, whether it’s receiving an email, going online or receiving a text message over their phone,” Goodfellow said. “As we move forward in the next 10 years, I think we’ll see them adapt to technology. I think in the future, we’ll see a transition to online or digital platforms for shopping, a more preferred method to find out about retailers and check prices and sales.”

While local retailers might need to start thinking about how they are going to lure in millenials, Del Ray’s restaurateurs have less to worry about, at least if you ask Bill Blackburn.

Blackburn, vice president of the Del Ray Business Association, is the brains behind Holy Cow, Sushi Bar and Pork Barrel BBQ. He said Del Ray has become a destination for “foodie-oriented millennials,” who are beginning to put the neighborhood on the map.

He believes other businesses will need to specialize to pull shoppers away from larger brand stores, but expects the community will get a boost from new construction in the neighborhood.

“One thing that jumped out at me [in Hamer’s speech], that I took notice of, [is] people are now paying a premium to live close to retail,” Blackburn said. “They’ll pay more so they can live on top of a Harris Teeter, a coffee shop or a convenience store. I think most of the new construction around Del Ray is set up that way and I think that’s going to drive more people, millennials included, to live in this area.”

Bill Hendrickson, executive director of the Del Ray Citizens Association, said Blackburn’s vision of the future is a nice one — if it turns out that way. Ironically, as the neighborhood becomes more popular, it may get harder for small, independent business to stay afloat, he warned.

“It’s becoming tougher for discretionary retail because so much is available online,” Hendrickson said. “So much of the retail stores provide some kind of experience and that’s not easy to pull off. But I think the change that you’ll see in Del Ray will come because rent is going up. [Most] businesses are somewhat marginal. They may find it hard to pay those rents and they’ll be replaced by businesses with a stronger business model. Who those will be, I don’t know.”