Major retail execs plan to explore a new land: Detroit

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Can Detroit — a city of one cinema multiplex and no Target stores — help major retailers figure out the future of shopping?

That could be one of the goals next September when an estimated 200 professionals who design stores for such chains as Walmart to Louis Vuitton to Apple gather in Detroit for the design:retail Forum, an annual conference aimed at top designers working in retail.

National retailers may try to learn the lessons of Detroit’s many independent shops and the emerging retail scene downtown and Midtown, said Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA Inc. in Southfield. The retail design firm has worked with such clients as Walt Disney Co., H&M, The North Face, Whole Foods and The Smithsonian Institution.

“The conference is an indication that many industry leaders think Detroit may be a really interesting model for what retail 2.0 could be,’’ Nisch said. The meeting comes as shopping malls are shuttering, and longtime chains are closing thousands of stores amid the rise of online shopping. Nisch hopes to take the designers to various parts of Detroit beyond downtown and Midtown to show them the “resiliency of neighborhoods.”

“This isn’t a big deal ... it’s a huge deal,” said Todd Sachse, CEO of Sachse Construction in Detroit. “For the last 40 years, the words major retail and Detroit — you didn’t hear those two things in the same sentence. It’s a sign that something is happening in this city, and it’s getting the attention of retail leaders.”

None of the officials contacted for this story can remember when such a flock of retail executives have met in the Motor City.

While not large in duration — Sept. 12-14 — or number of attendees, who will be there will make the conference influential.

“Our audience is really the people who decide what stores should look like,” said Alison Embrey Medina, editor in chief and associate publisher of Georgia-based design:retail magazine, which has been organizing the conference for over a decade.

“We attract the in-house designers for the major retailers: Target, Nike, Walmart, Apple. We get the firms like Fitch and JBA that design stores for many national retailers. And we get the up-and-coming innovators.”

Some analysts predict a quarter of all malls in the United States will close by 2022. Last year, more than 3,200 stores closed from a wide range of chains, including Macy’s to Radioshack to Payless Shoes. Last week, Lord & Taylor’s announced it was selling its flagship Manhattan store to WeWork, a start-up that offers shared-office space.

Medina said Detroit has been getting much buzz these days among retail designers. Some of that is due to the likes of John Varvatos, Under Armour and Bonobos opening stores downtown on Woodward Avenue, she said.

There also is much talk about the small independent shops popping up in Midtown, Eastern Market and other parts of city, Medina added.

Registration for the conference hasn’t opened, but Medina said initial enthusiasm appears high. When it was announced in September at the 2017 conference in Santa Rosa, California, that the next conference would be held in Detroit, “there was big applause,” Medina said. “So many designers told us they couldn’t wait to go. They couldn’t remember the last time they were in Detroit.”

Does that mean Detroit will soon get a Target or an Apple store?

“I can’t guarantee that,” Medina said. “I would assume most of the brands coming to the event, if they don’t have Detroit on their radar, they will in one to five years.”

Twitter: @LouisAguialr_DN