Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ya Gotta Eat

Yesterday I said we have to analyze consumer spending habits to come up with a plan for revitalizing the downtown. It's a simple strategy: figure out what will bring people to spend their money in Norristown, and go away happy enough that they'll be back to spend more and recommend it to others.

Here are our competitors: malls, chain stores, the internet, and other close-by small towns like Phoenixville and Conshy.

Think about what you usually buy. Clothes? Most people buy clothes 2 ways--they either need a particular item and go back to the store where they've found that item in the right fit, style and price, or they window-shop and make impulse purchases. Purchases for needed items are being done increasingly online, though there are always buyers who want to browse all the colors and choices in person before choosing.

Window-shopping these days is done mostly at malls, where you have a wider choice of stores, styles and price-ranges. I know people who window-shop on the internet, but the drawback is that you can't feel the fabric, see the true colors or try on the clothing. Window-shopping on Main Streets that have small boutiques will attract a certain kind of customer, but usually that person is in the town for other reasons. For instance, I still remember a great sweater I bought in Doylestown years ago. I was there to do a book signing and had 20 minutes to kill before I had to be at the bookstore. Small town boutiques tend to rely on other businesses to bring them foot traffic. Doylestown, like Norristown, has a courthouse, and we might expect potential customers from there during the day, but we still need to give those folks a reason to head down to Main Street in the first place.

Most of the above can apply to other purchases. Electronics? You either need an item and go where you know you can get it, or you love to window shop for new gadgets. Again, a lot of these purchases are made online. Even more so.

One thing people don't buy online is a meal. Oh, they might order it online, but they want it to come from someplace local enough that it's fresh and hot when they sit down to it. The malls and chain stores don't have a big variety of quality food. And one thing we have in N-town is all different kinds of great food.

Downtown on Main Street alone, in the half mile from Banh Mi Bistro down to Lou's Sandwich Shop, we already have more than a dozen eateries representing the cuisines of 7 countries on 4 continents. I've heard we'll probably get at least 2 new restaurants downtown in 2015.

I looked up "International Restaurant District" on Google and got only 3 hits in all of the US. Seattle's district is only made up of Asian restaurants. Charlotte, North Carolina claims to have such a district, but the majority of the restaurants seem to be pancake houses. It's also located along a 10-mile stretch of highway--not walkable.

The only city that comes close to Norristown for variety of cuisine, quantity, and walkability of restaurants is Arlington, Virginia. They have a long city block with about 14 restaurants from different cultures. I've eaten there, and had great Greek, Thai and Italian food. What do they have that Norristown doesn't? A hotel district serving the Pentagon and various conventions. Arlington also has a mall, with an entrance right out of the lobby of my hotel. No one went to the mall to eat. Everyone walked or drove the half mile down to the restaurant district on 23rd Street.

What doesn't Arlington have? Not one single Mexican restaurant. Norristown is fast becoming known as the place to find the most authentic Mexican food outside of Mexico, and from a variety of regions. Our other strengths? We're located in the middle of a populous region where lots of people like to go out to eat, or order take-out fairly often. We offer all kinds of price range options. You can easily find food that's both cheaper and better quality than fast food. I ate at La Michoacana last week and brought home enough leftovers for 2 more meals (roughly $5 per meal). The food was excellent.

What do we need to do to market Main Street as an International Restaurant District? Clean up its appearance. Powerwash the sidewalks. Empty the public trash receptacles more often. Make businesses aware that they can apply for Community Block Grants and other incentives to improve their facades. Add flower planters and art. Make the streets look festive.

Parking is a problem on weekdays, yet most of our restaurants are only open at those times. At night and on weekends, though, we have better parking than places like Phoenixville. We need better signage to show which lots become public lots during non-workhours.

To improve security, we need to light up the darkest, emptiest stretches. Trees look nice during the day, but they make the sidewalks dark at night. We need lighting that reaches beneath the trees. Council was pretty good about adding lighting to our shopping districts last year, so hopefully they'll continue. Even so, we can at least encourage restaurants to stay open an hour or so in the summer months, when the sun sets later. 

The main thing is to get the word out. Norristown's great restaurants are our biggest secret. A website with maps of downtown, the North End, West Marshall, showing the restaurants and parking lots, with info about Restaurant Week and other town festivals and events wouldn't hurt. The Norristown Business Association has begun a Restaurant Directory on their Facebook page this month (check it out--you don't have to sign on to view it). They're planning a better searchable directory for their website. You may even have the capability to order online from your favorite N-town eateries. The NBA is also planning some downtown events for the warmer months to create more activity on Main Street.

Appearance, parking, security, marketing. Those improvements could create a new downtown, and a new attitude toward Norristown. If the restaurants we have thrive, others will follow, along with retail boutiques and other businesses. 

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