Main Streets Evolving and (Mostly) Thriving

Hardly a day goes by without news of a major department store, big box retailer, or popular chain store scaling back or closing its doors. Based on the pace to date, in 2017, Credit Suisse estimates that U.S. retailers will close more than 8,600 locations this year, eclipsing the numbers from the 2008 recession.

Where is the bright spot of success? Small and mid-size town Main Streets which have been less affected – or at all – by Wall Street, the meteoric rise of online sales, and the growing realization that retail has been overbuilt in America – now known as “over-storing.”

Most Main Streets are expected to survive, and those that are able to adapt to changing trends are doing quite well – helped along by new tools such as Business Improvement Districts, Special Improvement Districts, Community Development Corporations and Main Street organizations. Yes, the stores are different, with an increased focus on self-pampering (salons, yoga, meditation), and food and drink as “entertainment” including microbreweries and craft beer.

A well-attended seminar presented by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission on “The New Normal for Downtowns” demonstrated the power of this market, particularly in older suburbs, providing a few key takeaways:

Consumers are now “deliberate” – they start shopping and comparing prices online, followed by targeting a specific store for the final decision and purchase.  Less browsing means smaller floorplans are required – ideal for small towns with older buildings.

Millennials are driving the evolution – from clothing and child-focused retail to the “pamper niche” – salons, yoga, and meditation studios with accompanying retail sales opportunities. Yes, urban areas are hot, but most millennials prefer suburbs (36 percent) or small towns (23 percent) (these numbers are expected to grow as the largest-ever generation creates families and seeks high-performing public schools). Main Streets offer the walkability of an urban environment that they crave.


Food and especially drink are the new Entertainment –  All age groups are spending higher percentages of their incomes on dining out, particularly at non-chain restaurants offering a unique experience. From “farm-to-table” dining, take-out, and other sustainable food offerings, to microbreweries and craft beer, this revolution is also creating new retail and job opportunities. Across the region, even formerly “dry” towns are expanding their options through new state legislation, boosting local wines and tasting flights of small-batch craft beers.

Get online and go social –  It should be no surprise that more than half of retail traffic in smaller towns and Main Streets is driven by internet promotion, far surpassing newspaper advertising and even word-of-mouth promotion.


Special events – such as street festivals, arts and craft fairs, food truck festivals, farmers markets, outdoor concerts, and public art all contribute to Main Street vibrancy. Success breeds more success and draws from a far larger ring of consumers. Embrace low-risk change with short-term pop-up shops in otherwise empty retail spaces.

Why shop small and local?

  • Nearly 90% of consumers agree that independent businesses contribute positively to local economies.
  • Residential neighborhoods with nearby, successful independent business districts have 50% higher home values than their urban counterparts.
  • Independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the local economy than chain competitors. Independent restaurants return more than twice as much per dollar of sales than national chains.
  • Local economies gain $179 per square foot from local businesses, versus $105 from a chain store.
  • Since 1980, more than $65 billion has been reinvested into America’s Main Streets. These investments have helped to create nearly 150,000 new businesses and rehabilitated more than 250,000 buildings.

Main Streets play a key role in the long-term success of communities and help maintain that much-desired “sense of place.” When Main Streets are strong, so are the neighborhoods that surround them. That helps everyone.

Find out more about the small towns and main streets of the Delaware Valley, visit Classic Towns of Greater Philadelphia, an initiative of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Sources:  Small Business Administration; Intuit Small Business; American Express OPEN Independent Retail Index; Civic Economics, Main Street America, U.S. Dept. of Labor.  Special thanks to N. David Milder and DANTH, Inc.


Susan Baltake is a Senior Advisor for Econsult Solutions. She is a marketing, management and media strategist with deep private and public sector experience in land use, community and economic development. Ms. Baltake has branded, grown and launched organizations, managed political campaigns, and served in government.

Share This