As more people do their shopping online, retailing in Northeast Ohio is changing. And while most brick-and-mortar stores are not in danger of going the way of the dinosaur, in a region where the population isn’t expanding, every online sale has a cost in the malls, in the storefronts and in jobs lost.
By more than one estimate, including by local economist Jack Kleinhenz, the chief economist for the National Retail Federation, online sales now make up 10% of retail sales. Sales, buoyed by rising prices, continue to grow modestly, though accurate regional sales figures are not available.
“The decline in store traffic is not a trend anymore. It’s a shift, a permanent shift,” said Elad Granot, dean of the Dauch College of Business and Economics at Ashland University. “So brick-and-mortar retailers have to figure out what they can offer that Amazon can’t, and it’s getting to be a shorter and shorter list.”
Granot was referring to online retailer Amazon.com‘s move into the grocery business with its purchase of Whole Foods, and its expanding role in logistics. The logistics push includes a growing fleet of cargo airplanes and its fulfillment centers, such as the ones it is building in North Randall and Euclid, on sites of former shopping malls.
Granot said some retail categories are relatively safe. He said, for example, that shopping for makeup can entail trying out different products with an in-store stylist — what he calls an experience. The categories that should be worried about Amazon, he believes, are the categories that have no experience attached to consumption.
“If I need Band-Aids, I’m not going to wait until the next time I’m at CVS, I’m going to order them on Amazon right now,” Granot said, noting that he recently was on a flight of stairs with a student who was ordering a pair of sneakers online as they walked. “CVS provides me with no experience when I shop for Band-Aids.”
According to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, the retail trade in the seven-county Cleveland metropolitan area lost 8,758 jobs, 5.9% of total jobs in retailing, in the decade between 2006 and 2016. During the same time period, the number of retail establishments dropped 6.5%, a net loss, since new stores keep opening, of 601 establishments.
Much of that loss was in Cuyahoga County as new retail developments sprout up in neighboring counties. Over the decade, the core county lost 5,927 jobs, or 8.6% of its retail jobs, and 464, or 10%, of its retail establishments.
And the decline is continuing, according to preliminary jobs numbers for 2017.
While employment in major Northeast Ohio sectors such as manufacturing, financial services and education and health services held steady or rose, the region continued to lose retail jobs between January 2017 and January 2018, according to the state data.
Regional retail sales are growing, according to Alex Boehnke, manager of public affairs at the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants (OCRM), though regional sales are not well tracked.
The best estimate of the trend in retail sales in Ohio and its metropolitan areas is done by the Economics Center at the University of Cincinnati for OCRM. In November, as the holiday shopping season was beginning, the center estimated that retail sales in the Cleveland metropolitan area for the 2017 holiday season would grow only 3.1%. Sales in the Akron metro were expected to grow only 1.2%. Estimates of national holiday sales growth ranged from 4% to 6%.
“We don’t have the population coming in,” Kleinhenz said. “The pie is not growing.”
CBRE, a national real estate brokerage with a large Cleveland operation, calculates that only two metropolitan areas have more retail square feet per person than Northeast Ohio, where there is 29.9 square feet of retail for every person in the area. In its August 2017 report, “Dead Malls: a boost for retail?,” which is subtitled, “Is retail in Cleveland dying, or is it just overbuilt,” Cleveland-based research analyst Brandon Isner found that only Orlando, with 30.4 square feet per resident (a deceptive figure for a tourist city), and Atlanta, with 30 square feet per resident, top Cleveland.
“It is clear that Cleveland has a supply issue in regard to retail real estate,” Isner wrote. “(W)ithout the population growth that other metro areas have enjoyed, extra retail will weaken what remains.”
In Cuyahoga County, retailers in two mixed-use developments will be opening their doors in the coming months. Opening in the spring, Pinecrest, in Orange Village, has lured several dozen retailers, including Whole Foods, Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma. In Shaker Heights, the Van Aken District will add about 100,000 square feet of retail space come summer.
Similarly, retail building booms in Avon in Lorain County and in and around the site of the former Geauga Lake amusement park in Geauga County have cost Cuyahoga County retail sales.
“There is no doubt there is a shift going on,” Kleinhenz said. “Are we overstored? In many cases, that is accurate. It’s just that it’s not necessarily that retail is declining broadly.”
Joseph Khouri, a real estate broker with CBRE in Cleveland, agrees with Granot. He, too, believes the retailers who survive will be the ones who sell an experience and activity related retail. He pointed to Toys R Us, which recently announced it was closing all of its stores nationwide after declaring bankruptcy.
“They didn’t differentiate themselves from online sellers,” he said. “People are gravitating toward experiential retail. Specialty food retailers, arts and crafts, home goods products that you have to touch and feel — unique offerings that are hard to mimic online.”
That ability of local retail to be an experience leads Granot to say that he believes local, boutique retailers can also survive.
“Shopping local, especially in Northeast Ohio, is a point of pride,” he said. “There is a lot of room for local retailers to do well, as long as they offer an additional benefit beyond the actual product and price, because it’s going to be increasingly harder to beat Amazon.”