Business

“A combination of demographics, geography and luck turned Columbus into the nation’s consumer laboratory”

The physical retail market, crumbling in the face of competition from e-commerce sites, is in the midst of a transformation as fundamental as the one that shifted consumers to suburban shopping malls — and away from Main Street — half a century ago.

Upstart brands powered by social media are stealing customers from established companies, and the carnage is widespread. More than a dozen major retailers, from Toys “R” Us to Payless ShoeSource, have sought bankruptcy protection this year. Thousands of stores have closed.

Now, as brick-and-mortar retailers around the country stumble, the experimentation has taken on new urgency. Stores are trying out all manner of gimmickry — anything, really — to win back shoppers. And when brands want to try out new concepts, they often come to Columbus.

“We are Test Market, U.S.A.,” said Irene Alvarez, director of marketing and communications for Columbus 2020, a trade group that promotes the region. “We decide the fate of cheeseburgers and presidents here in Columbus.”

A combination of demographics, geography and luck turned Columbus into the nation’s consumer laboratory. This Rust Belt city has historically been a microcosm of the national population’s age and ethnicity, ranking fourth among metropolitan areas in its resemblance to the United States over all, according to data compiled by WalletHub.

“It’s a perfect melting pot for folks like us to test new concepts,” said Roger Rawlins, chief executive of DSW, the shoe retailer, which is based in Columbus.

Ohio State University’s 65,000 students mean young shoppers are always on hand. Columbus is within a day’s drive of nearly half of the United States population, making it a convenient hub for distribution. The city’s relatively small size and contained media market make it affordable for companies to run advertising campaigns and measure their effectiveness. And its relatively low profile allows brands to try something and fail — without the scrutiny they would draw in New York or Los Angeles.

Perhaps most important, a robust network of retailers and service providers — from big brands like Abercrombie & Fitch to small design firms that focus on store layouts — has taken root in Columbus. Today there are more fashion designers in Columbus than in any other American city besides New York and Los Angeles.

David Gelles, “An Alternate Universe of Shopping”, The New York Times (15 October 2017), BU4.