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Billy Turner runs a troweling machine to smooth the concrete entrance to the Tartget store.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Billy Turner runs a troweling machine to smooth the concrete entrance to the Tartget store.

Welcome to ‘Mayberry-ville’
High-end retailers not interested in Decatur

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

We snagged a Target. Now when do we get a Macy’s? A Jos. A. Bank? An upscale movie theater? A Coldwater Creek?

Don’t hold your breath.

Demographics are everything in the world of retail site selection, and according to the numbers, Decatur is “Mayberry-ville.”

San Diego-based Claritas Inc., a leading consulting firm for retail site selection, assigns populations to one of 66 categories.

In its lighthearted but carefully researched category description, Claritas posits that on a special night, people in Mayberry-ville drive their Chevy Silverado to Lone Star Steakhouse. We like to hunt, read our Bassmaster magazine and watch country music TV.

Residents of Mayberry-ville, Claritas explains, “use their discretionary cash to purchase boats, campers, motorcycles and pickup trucks.”

Not a problem for a retailer that sells Harley-Davidsons. Bloomingdale’s, though, won’t make it over Hudson Memorial Bridge.

“Ruth’s Chris is not going to go there,” said Steve Moore, marketing director at Claritas. “If people there don’t have enough money to pay for a $30 steak, that place isn’t going to do much business, is it?”

What Mayberry-ville attracts, Moore explained, is what Decatur has.

“You’re going to have retailers who are attracted by a blue-collar community. A Sizzler will go over there. An Applebee’s will go over. Denny’s. You’re going to get the Targets and the Wal-Marts and the Kmarts,” said Moore. “Not the Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom or Macy’s.”

If the numbers aren’t right for a particular retailer, our borders will keep it out as surely as a moat would.

And for high-end retailers, the numbers are wrong.

Decatur’s economic vitality, according to the most recent report by Moody’s Economy.com, compiled in March, is 349. That places it in the bottom fifth of the nation. Its employment growth rank, at 299, is in the nation’s fourth quintile.

Below average expansion

Moody’s analysis of Decatur, studied by many retail site-selection consultants, concludes that “Decatur’s economy continues to expand at a below average pace with payrolls flattening since the start of the year. ... An outdated infrastructure and proximity to outperforming Huntsville will keep (Decatur) only an average performer.”

Moody’s sees a risk that Decatur will experience “the return of slow manufacturing erosion.”

Ouch.

Those of us who live here see beyond the numbers. We see a city blessed with spectacular recreational opportunities that include the Tennessee River, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and a plethora of sport venues from soccer fields to softball diamonds to tennis courts to public swimming pools. We see vibrant churches and unmatched hospitality.

In short, we see and enjoy a quality of life that eludes quantification. But high-end retailers start with the numbers. They rarely get past them.

The director of client services for Michigan-based Pitney Bowes MapInfo, which like Claritas is a major player in the site-selection business for expanding retailers, said high-end retailers won’t come here soon, if ever.

“Decatur is what it is,” Dave Huntoon said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of with it. It may be that you’re not getting the Nordstroms of the world to locate in Decatur, but the reality is that type of retailer wouldn’t appeal to a significant number of the people who live in Decatur.”

The Huntsville factor

Huntsville’s proximity is a disincentive to high-end retailers who might otherwise drop into Decatur.

“A retailer is going to look at Huntsville in its own right, and then the ability to draw the Decatur consumer into Huntsville as a bonus,” said Huntoon. “You don’t draw from Huntsville. And you won’t. People orient to the larger market. Huntsville can almost be a detriment, because it bleeds off a lot of those sales.”

If you don’t like the Mayberry-ville image, you’ll probably like the categories that have the highest populations in Decatur under the Claritas system even less: “Sunset City Blues” and “Park Bench Seniors.”

“With modest educations and incomes, (Park Bench Seniors) residents maintain low-key, sedentary lifestyles,” Claritas explains. “Theirs is one of the top-ranked segments for TV viewing, especially daytime soaps and game shows.”

We eat at Blimpie’s, says Claritas, and drive a Kia Rio.

While Claritas tries to make the demographics meaningful to retailers through its colorful narratives, make no mistake:

“It’s a numbers game,” said Moore. “The bottom line is whether there are the kind of people the retailer thinks are its market, based on what it’s selling. If a retailer is looking at Decatur, it’s looking at the makeup of the population.”

Stagnant growth

Moore said some of Decatur’s most damning numbers — from the perspective of high-end retailers — are its stagnant population growth and its low household income — $56,354.

“Decatur is not growing,” Moore said. “Do the math. Nobody’s coming in there.”

And that’s a killer if the goal is retail expansion.

“Population growth matters,” said Huntoon. “The growth is critical because that will make up for mistakes. If I start out slow in a market and it’s growing, I can build sales up to the point where they’re satisfactory. If it’s a stagnant market, I don’t have that growth helping to drive sales.”

Retailers are not talkative about which demographics make them drool, but a look at their recent site-selection choices is revealing.

Coldwater Creek just opened at a Pensacola, Fla., mall that boasts demographics that Claritas labels “Second City Elite.” They “tend to be prosperous executives who decorate their $200,000 homes with multiple computers, large-screen TV sets and an impressive collection of wines.”

Or there’s Bloomingdale’s, which opened a store in a part of San Francisco whose numbers put it into Claritas’ elite “Young Digerati.” This group spends its considerable income at “fitness clubs and clothing boutiques, casual restaurants and all types of bars — from juice to coffee to microbrew.”

Instead of game shows, Claritas explains, they watch the Independent Film Channel. Their magazine of choice is not Bassmaster, but Elle Décor.

Jos. A. Bank and Ann Taylor, clothing shops, believe they’ve hit pay dirt in Dublin, Ohio. With a median household income half again that of Decatur’s, the town’s population includes what Claritas calls the “Upper Crust,” its most affluent designation. These folk read Atlantic Monthly, watch the Golf Channel and drive a Jaguar XK.

Decatur’s frugality

Decatur residents spend only 74 percent as much as Madison residents eating dinner out, less than 70 percent as much as their Madison counterparts on alcoholic beverages outside the home and clothing, according to Claritas 2006 data.

Frugality is a virtue, but not one honored by Macy’s.

“A high-end department store will look at Huntsville, but Decatur probably can’t support it today, and may not be able to support it 10 years from now,” Huntoon said.

“Shifting the demographics enough to appeal to high-end retail is very, very tough. The reality is that cities tend to get the retailers that they probably ought to have.”

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