In all the years retail-design executive Ken Nisch attended the most influential shopping trade-show, he never imagined giving the presentation he did at this year’s National Retail Federation’s Big Show in Manhattan.
“I explained why Detroit can be the future of retail,” said Nisch, who is chairman of Southfield-based retail-design company JGA Inc.
Nisch told to this to several hundred conference attendees last month during his panel presentation. The crowd included major Japanese investors, the head of a major chocolate retailer in Brazil, and tech executives trying to figure out how to integrate online shopping with brick-and-mortar stores. Also in the crowd were “thought leaders” for the kind of international chains “you haven’t seen in Detroit in decades, and in some cases, never,” Nisch said.
“For years, I never thought I will tell a room full of retail leaders such a thing.”
Detroit — a city without a single Target store, one cinema multiplex and a measly pair of 7-Eleven’s — just may provide answers in an era when shopping malls are dying by the hundreds and an estimated 7,000 stores, including dozens of national chains, went out of business across the nation last year.
The city that shopping malls and national chains ignored contains valuable clues on how to survive this reality, Nisch contends.
“Detroit was once the center of shopping, but that began to die 40 years ago,” he said. “We fell hard and for a long time. Now, of course, we are seeing a scene emerge that’s beyond the shopping mall.”
Nisch gave his presentation along with a Whole Foods Market executive, the then-president of Shinola Detroit and the founder of Detroit Denim. Nisch helped design the Whole Foods Midtown store, its sole Detroit location, which has many local references from Motown and the inclusion of local suppliers such as Avalon International Breads.
Nisch, who has a background in architecture, has shaped retail spaces for Walt Disney Co., H&M and the Smithsonian Institution. He has extensive experience with European and Asian retailers.
There’s a buzz phrase in the retail industry: creating unique “customer experiences.” That basically means motivating someone to shop at a store instead of shopping online.
Detroit’s emerging scene of DIY retailers is full of unique customer experiences, Nisch contends. The include Detroit is the New Black, an apparel and accessories shop focusing on local designers; and the Peacock Room, a women’s apparel and accessories store with a vintage bent. And it’s attracting more unique retailers such as City Bakery, a New York cafe and bakery with locations in Manhattan, Tokyo and now, the Fisher Building in New Center.
Detroit has great under-served buildings like the Fisher Buidling, an Art Deco dazzler, that are seeing billions in investment. That includes the major renovations of dozens of downtown buildings done by Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock , which controls major holdings on Woodward Avenue, and plans by the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development of Michigan to revive 50 blocks of the city.
“We are having such a great moment. I want to do everything I can to help share the story,” Nisch said.
Nisch isn’t the only one who thinks Detroit is having a moment.
“For the last 40 years, the words ‘major retail’ and ‘Detroit’ — you didn’t hear those two things in the same sentence,’” said Todd Sachse, vice president of Broder & Sachse Real Estate in Birmingham. He’s also CEO of Sachse Construction.
In the downtown area, an estimated $5.2 billion in development projects is planned from 2017 through 2022. “We now have the kind of investment that can attract a lot more investment,” he said.
He praised Nisch’s presentation at the retailers expo. “Having someone of Ken’s stature say that to an influential group, it goes a long way in planting the seed of making things happen,” Sachse said.
It’s not the only opportunity for Detroiters to hype the city to influential developers and retailers. For the first time in 40 years, the Urban Land Institute’s spring meeting will be held in Detroit. The May 1-3 gathering is expected to bring more than 3,000 real estate professionals from across the world to the Motor City.
In September, an estimated 200 professionals who design stores for such chains as Walmart to Louis Vuitton to Apple will gather in Detroit for the design:retail Forum. It’s the first time the annual conference will meet in Detroit.
Does this mean Detroit may get a Target soon?
“I think we will eventually get the new form of Target,” Nisch said. Not the 70,000-square-foot store that you find in the suburbs, but a smaller Target aimed at urban areas and one that has enough features to lure customers to a brick-and-mortar store instead of online, he said. The retail world is still trying to figure out that kind of store.
“I think Detroit can help the industry figure out what that kind of store should be.”