Carol Buie-Jackson and her husband, Jay, spent months agonizing over where their business idea, a wild bird product shop, could really take off.
They considered vacant spaces in Dilworth, Myers Park and Plaza Midwood.
But when the couple saw a 1,600-square-foot space at south Charlotte shopping center The Shops at Piper Glen, their minds were made up.
Here’s why: the spot at 6416 Rea Road is at the trailhead to the popular Four-Mile Creek Greenway. It’s two doors down from a high-traffic Trader Joe’s grocery store. And it’s close to some of their target customers: 50-something, environmentally conscious women with above-average income.
Two years later, Carol and Jay say their business, Birdhouse on the Greenway, is thriving.
Real estate professionals have long touted the “location, location, location” refrain with home buyers, but at a time when consumers and business owners alike are still tightening their belts, staking out a spot that’s prominent, affordable and fits your business has grown increasingly important, especially for those with a niche customer base.
“The bottom line is, depending on the nature of the business, the location is (an) important part of the branding,” says Lynn Douthett, district director of the N.C. district office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
For Birdhouse on the Greenway, exposure was the key to their overarching hurdle: getting those environmentally conscious, nature-loving target consumers out of their houses, into the shopping center vicinity, and inside their store.
For Chris Wysocki, co-owner of Yarnhouse, a specialty knitting, crocheting and fiber arts shop in NoDa, it started with exposure but came down to parking, customers’ No. 1 complaint.
Last week, he and his business partner, Robert Fulbright, bid farewell to the building on North Davidson Street they’d occupied since they opened in 2008. In the heart of the artsy neighborhood, the exposure was great, but parking was scarce.
In NoDa, Wysocki says, restaurants occupy most of the prime real estate, and while customers are often willing to walk several blocks for dinner plans, they might not do the same for window-shopping.
But Yarnhouse didn’t move far. Only a half-mile down the road, the new storefront faces ample parking spaces and is three doors down from one of the city’s most popular destinations: Amelie’s French Bakery, open 24/7. Yarnhouse customers are thrilled, Wysocki says.
“It’s a short move, but it’s going to be monumental nonetheless,” Wysocki says.
When Buie-Jackson and her husband was looking for the right spot, their real estate agent tried to wave them off their current spot for similar reasons: congestion and a fear that the area’s popularity would create parking problems for customers.
Buie-Jackson disagreed. She felt that, for an unestablished company, passersby were exactly what Birdhouse on the Greenway needed.
Weighing the cost
But all the foot traffic is a moot point if the spot isn’t affordable, says Douthett of the SBA. Too-expensive overhead can kill a business just as fast as an oft-empty parking lot.
Local real estate experts say the downturn is responsible for what some call a “tenants’ market.”
According to Karnes Research Group, the vacancy rate for the 60.4 million square feet of retail space in Charlotte and surrounding counties as of the fourth quarter of 2012, is 8.6 percent, ranging from a low of 4.9 percent (Cabarrus County) to a high of 15.2 percent (uptown Charlotte).
The average is lower than the 9.8 percent reported in 2010 but up from the 4.9 percent regional low in 2006, pre-recession.
Higher vacancy rates mean landlords generally make less money from rent.
“There’s a lot of available space out there,” says Andrew Jenkins of Karnes Research Co. “If you’re a tenant you still have the opportunity to get some deals. It’s not like it was back in 2008 ... when you had to take whatever.
“And in retail, the mom-and-pop stores have had less access to money and landlords are more willing to work with (them).”
That speaks to another reason Wysocki and Fulbright decided to move: Even though six other retailers were all vying for the same space, in the new spot, they’re still saving 20 percent on rent.
But even if you have a high-traffic location with affordable rent, it’s important to make sure the surrounding area is complementary, experts agree.
For many niche businesses, it’s important to serve a community that appreciates specialty boutique shopping, says Douthett of SBA.
NoDa is known for its lack of chain shops and restaurants. And the Shops at Piper Glen offer their own support-local, intimate feel, Buie-Jackson says.
The center is walkable, and the shop’s neighbors – a hair salon, nail salon, dry cleaners and specialty olive-oil store – all cater to their own niche customers as well.
For Buie-Jackson and Birdhouse on the Greenway, the prime real estate also helped them do more than sell goods. They created community.
The speciality shop now offers guided nature walks through the canopied greenway that highlight flora and fauna for enthusiasts of all ages, from Girl Scouts to retirees.
In the early days, when the couple was tossing around store name ideas, they settled on “Birdhouse on the Greenway” as a play on the well-known former Central Park restaurant “Tavern on the Green” and the upscale nature of the neighborhood.
But, Buie-Jackson says, “it really doesn’t matter because everybody’s going to call us ‘that bird store by Trader Joe’s’ or ‘that bird store by the greenway.’”
And that suits them just fine.
McMillan: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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