Study reveals Middlebury shopping trends

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury has a fairly strong and diverse retail market that could be improved by a general merchandise store, more restaurants and more clothing and electronics options. And the community should not fret about a “big box” entity seeking to build a mega store in town, because the amount of shopping dollars leaking from the community to other retail hubs is not enough to induce a developer to build such a store in Addison County’s shire town.
Representatives of the consulting firm of Arnett Muldrow & Associates unveiled these and other findings last week as part of a “Future of Retail Study” intended to take a snapshot of the current retail market in Middlebury and determine how it could be improved.
The study, commissioned by the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), featured a survey that drew a whopping 1,065 responses from folks who live and shop in the Middlebury area. Around 76 percent of those who answered the survey reported living in the 05753 zip code — referred to by Muldrow as “the primary trade area” — which includes Middlebury, East Middlebury, Cornwall, Ripton and Weybridge.
In addition, around 15 Middlebury merchants recorded the zip codes of more than 2,500 shoppers who did business in their stores within a set period last month, information that consultants tracked to provide some key demographic information.
“We were beyond happy,” Tripp Muldrow, a partner with Arnett Muldrow & Associates, said of the response rate. “The survey responses here were the best we’ve ever had, anywhere we have ever worked. And we have done over 200 of them. The input was incredible, and useful.”
Respondents were candid in stating what they like about the current Middlebury shopping experience. Many said they appreciate the quality customer service, good restaurants, the walkable downtown, improved traffic flow, “unique” retail offerings and pleasant appearance of the commercial area.
But respondents also identified some weaknesses, including inconvenient and inadequate parking, poor accessibility to stores during the winter, stores closing too early in the evening, and a lack of variety in retail offerings. Among other problem areas identified by the consultants were poor access to the Marble Works shopping complex, traffic/pedestrian safety problems on Exchange Street and Route 7 South, a perception that the downtown shops are “just for tourists,” and competition from door-to-door sales and online services.
“The amount and convenience of parking had the most dissatisfaction,” Muldrow said. “In our experience, hours (of store operation) and parking are consistently cited in communities across the country. Those answers are not unique to Middlebury.”
Muldrow singled out some of the following highlight findings from the survey:
•  76 percent of respondents “strongly agreed” that shopping local is important to them. But only 5 percent strongly agreed they could find everything they need in Middlebury.
•  56 percent of respondents “strongly disagreed” with the notion that retail development outside of the downtown would erode the quality of Middlebury, while 9 percent strongly agreed with that statement.
•  68 percent “strongly agreed” that additional retail would keep more customers in Middlebury, while 3 percent disagreed.
•  Respondents were invited to share some personal opinions. That input suggested good support for additional clothing, restaurant (particularly ethnic Mexican) and department store amenities. The term “big box” was cited 18 times in comments, with six references in the negative. The former Ames Department Store was mentioned 34 times, with only two negative references.
“There was a lot of reminiscing on Ames,” Muldrow said, in reference to the local department store that once operated in The Centre shopping plaza off Court Street  Extension.
Overall, people answering the survey seemed open to seeing a local “big box” store if its appearance were more in harmony with local architecture and not a conventional franchise appearance.
•  Three-quarters of respondents said they generally go out to shop once per week. Around a quarter of respondents said they shop online, a proportion that Muldrow said is higher than he has seen in many other communities. He theorized that the higher income and education levels of Addison County residents, along with a lack of proximity to big-name department stores, is contributing to the larger percentage of online shopping.
“It sort of indicates a new era, in that, when we see shopping online ranking number two — it actually trumps downtown, Chittenden County, South Burlington and other states,” Muldrow said. “On-line is a very real thing. It’s not just a notion.”
The zip code data revealed some interesting findings about who is shopping in Middlebury. Of the total Middlebury retail “pie,” 26.4 percent is being consumed by Middlebury residents; 13.1 percent by Middlebury College students; 10.3 percent by Weybridge and Cornwall residents; 10.2 percent by Vermonters outside of the county; 10.4 percent by out-of-staters; and varying smaller percentages by shoppers from Bristol, New Haven, Vergennes, Ripton and other Addison County towns.
“In our experience, this is a very balanced visitor base,” Muldrow said.
He added the survey and zip code study have exploded two myths: That local stores primarily cater to visitors and that Middlebury College students purchase what they need on campus.
“Middlebury people are shopping in these stores,” Muldrow said. “And (college students) represent about one in every 10 customers. We were surprised at the robustness of student visits to gift-oriented stores in the downtown.”
Muldrow identified the average age of the local consumer as 39, with an average household income of $62,918. He noted that population in the Addison County area has been stagnant or on a slight decline, as has been the case in most areas of the state.
Stores within the primary trade area of Middlebury, East Middlebury, Cornwall, Ripton and Weybridge sell $315.8 million in wares each year, and consumers within the trade area spend $242.9 million annually, according to Muldrow.
He cited automotive sales and service, and a diverse menu of grocery stores and drug stores, as solid consumer draws for Middlebury. But he pointed to other sectors that are “leaking” sales to retail regions, such as  in Chittenden and Rutland counties and the Ticonderoga, N.Y., area; he specifically cited the categories of furniture and home furnishings, electronics and building materials.
Muldrow added the Middlebury market is losing out on an estimated $34 million in general merchandise sales — including toys, hobbies, books and music — and $6 million in annual clothing sales.
“That ($34 million) in leakage is not enough to support a Target or a Wal-Mart in this market,” Muldrow said. “It is enough to potentially support a junior department store, and almost certainly enough to support … a Dollar General.”
Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General Corp. is the nation’s largest small-box discount retailer, with more than 11,000 stores in 40 states, including locations in Barre, Rutland and Colchester. It offers a “carefully edited assortment of the most popular brands at low everyday prices in small, convenient locations,” according to its corporate website. Its wares include cleaning, health, household items, clothing, food, toys, office and school supplies, and pet supplies.
“Dollar General will probably be a divisive issue here,” Muldrow said. “It’s a discount store and small — roughly the size of Rite Aid. For all practical purposes, take a Wal-Mart and shrink it down about seven times. It certainly is divisive in Vermont, because it’s a chain store, and some don’t like that.”
This past February the Vermont Supreme Court ruled against a group that sued to block construction of a Dollar General in Ferrisburgh on Route 7 near Denecker Chevrolet. Developers said at that time they expected to break ground on the new store this summer.
Muldrow suggested some strategies for Middlebury to pursue to strengthen its retail strategy. They include doing a better job marketing the fact that one can get at least most of what they are looking for locally; acknowledging there is some retail “leakage” and working proactively to fill that void in a manner that townspeople and merchants find palatable; and beginning to think of Middlebury’s retail market as a common area, one that is not divided into separate identities of “downtown,” “Route 7 South,” and “Exchange Street.”
“This is an extraordinarily dynamic market, and the districts are dependent on each other,” Muldrow said.
Middlebury economic development officials said the survey results were very informative and will be put to good use by the town in planning future retail strategies.
“We’ve got the data now, and it will allow us to move forward,” said BMP President Ben Wilson. “We will have data that can inform our decision-making process.”
Wilson said he was struck by many of the survey findings, including those pointing to the extent to which college students shop downtown, and the revelation that the local market doesn’t appear to warrant a big box store. The town has set a 50,000-square-foot limit on major retail entities in anticipation of someday fielding a big-box application.
Wilson also noted the finding that 76 percent of the survey respondents want more retail in the Middlebury market.
“We’ve got work to do to figure out how to fill that gap,” he said.
Jamie Gaucher, director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation, was also pleased with the data. He noted it could come in very handy as the town gets set to market land behind the Ilsley Public Library for an as-yet undefined economic development project.
“As we look at the options and the vision for that space, we see there is room for creative and conventional solutions and opportunities for creative growth,” Gaucher said. “It’s now up to the community to collectively determine what are the best options associated with growth.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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