Conway’s Downtown Partnership recently took part in a Main Street America study to better understand its merchants, residents, visitors and overall market.
“The Arkansas Main Street program, of which Conway is a part, provided these services to Arkansas cities this year fee of charge,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Conway’s Downtown Partnership. “I think it is very powerful information, and we learned about what’s thriving and what are our economic engines are.”
Kathy La Plante, senior program officer and director of coordinating program services for Main Street America, on Wednesday, presented Downtown Partnership board members, merchant members and the public with the findings during several meetings throughout the day.
“Main Street America has a four-point approach to economic transformation,” La Plante said. “Organization, design, promotion and economic vitality. Strategies can include either customer-based or product-based approaches.”
A survey completed earlier in the year resulted in more than 360 public responses, which La Plante considered a “good overall response.” Questions included: “What three words come to mind when you think about Downtown Conway;” and “What businesses do you most often patronize Downtown?”
Issues most important to the public were also charted, with parking coming in at No. 1.
Vacancies, store variety, entertainment, traffic, infrastructure and inconsistent hours were ranked in that order after parking.
Respondents also gave feedback as to the types of businesses they would like to see in Downtown, which included: a brewery, more entertainment, a bookstore, a pub/restaurant, coffee shop/bakery, art/craft store, shoe store, home goods and an entrepreneurial/start-up hub.
The survey concluded that more than 40 percent of people tend to shop mostly on Saturdays, with Fridays coming in at 30 percent.
Downtown shopping specifically happens on Saturdays, according to more than 50 percent of people surveyed.
Not surprisingly, La Plante said, the survey indicated 25 percent of respondents work in Downtown Conway.
“What we know is there are 353 businesses in a ¼-mile radius of Downtown Conway, and approximately 55 are retail and 17 are restaurants,” she reported. “The district clusters in three top categories which are furniture/home furnishings, apparel and restaurants.”
Also included in the Main Street report were psychographic profiles, which is the study of personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests and lifestyles in a demographic area. The city of Conway is 20.7 percent made up of “Up and Coming Families,” in which the median age is 31.4 and the median household income is $72,000. Another 16.6 percent are categorized as “Bright Young Professionals,” whose median age is 33 and household income is $54,000.
“No one segment was dominant,” La Plante said. “But ‘Up and Coming Families’ and ‘Bright Young Professionals’ are most closely aligned with Downtown’s offerings. There are split characteristics of the market: different consumer needs, preferences and price sensitivity.”
La Plante said Downtown Partnership leaders should examine whether to address both or target one or more segments.
Downtown Partnership President Jack Bell said he’s heard La Plante give presentations like this one before, and the exciting next step for leadership will be examining the reports more closely.
“Once you dig into that report, all the psychographic profiles are very interesting,” he said. “That’s very interesting to look at those demographics for an individual area.”
Other things to note about the city of Conway:
Population of 65,201
Median age of 29.2
Median Household Income of $46,472
38 percent hold college degrees
34,479 people are employed at 2,516 local businesses
The overall unemployment rate is 3.6 percent
Population is increasing modestly at a rate of 0.43 percent annually
Population is racially diverse
Sales leakage and surplus by retail category was addressed for Downtown. And La Plante exclaimed she has not frequently encountered Conway’s positive trend.
Leakage in an area represents a condition where demand exceeds supply, she explained. In other words, retailers outside the market area are fulfilling the demand for retail products, therefore demand is “leaking” out of the trade area.
A surplus represents a condition where supply exceeds the area’s demand. Retailers are attracting shoppers who reside outside the trade area.
“What we see in Downtown Conway is a sales surplus in every major category but automotive,” La Plante said. “Total surplus in all retail and restaurant sectors is $187 million on top of local demand of $98 million. The most significant surpluses coincide with important downtown clusters like home furnishings, clothing and food services.”
La Plante noted that sales may be occurring at any business within the 5-minute area of Downtown.
“The Downtown Partnership now can examine how we can support our businesses and add additional businesses,” WIlliams said. “We have identified our Downtown strengths. It is just amazing to hear how we were really recognized in these areas.”
Ten minutes outside the area, a surplus also is evident, Main Street research indicates, with food and beverage (most likely alcohol sales) the only significant leakage at $23 million annually.
“It is important for Downtown and city leadership to ask a few questions,” La Plante said. “‘Where are the surpluses coming from?’ To what extent is Downtown capturing the surplus spending?’”
Some attendees in Wednesday’s presentations were surprised to realize that the strongest market base for Downtown Conway was furniture and home furnishings, followed closely by apparel and dining and entertainment.
“I was surprised apparel came in above dining,” WIlliams said. “They were really close.”
Strategies for keeping Downtown vital and profitable, La Plante said, could include making highlighting the district as a destination for home accessories and services, such as home decor, antique stores, furniture stores, flooring retailers and even paint stores located in the area.
For example, activities and planning of special events could center around the strong market already in place.
“I think we can target that demographic, take the strengths we have, like furniture and home furnishings, focus on those and try to make those areas stronger through special events. And, we can apply that to trying to attract businesses in those categories,” Bell said.
Jeanne Smyers, owner of The Kitchen Store and Downtown Partnership board member, said Wednesday’s presentation was enlightening, helping retailers and residents look at the big picture.
“Finding the right balance for retailers is key to strategizing,” she said. “I think we will need to do a good job as a board and with Kim’s [Williams] help educating the community over what we’ve learned. And, we have to take into account all the work both the board and [Conway Area Chamber of Commerce] have been doing over the years that aligns with what we can do moving forward.”
La Plante suggested audiences for a home and furnishings destination could include a “young market” made up of recent graduates starting out in their first apartments or homes or newlyweds. Homeowners who are ready to make investments in furnishings or decor and even more permanent items like flooring, appliances and renovations. Renters also will be a likely audience.
Similar strategies could apply to apparel and dining markets, taking into consideration demographic and consumer information provided in the Main Street assessment.
“I think what this study does is reinforces the intent when we started down this road of transforming Downtown,” WIlliams said. “We want to make it the center of vitality for the city, and these findings really reinforces that we’re heading in right direction.”