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The Rapidly Changing Art of Attracting Retailers

November 7, 2022

A highly decorated marketer of premium retail properties, Cindy Ciura founded CC Consulting in July 2005, following executive stints tenanting such upscale projects as Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston; Somerset Collection in Troy, Michigan; and The Gardens of the Palm Beaches in Florida. Ciura now works predominantly with cities trying to lure sought-after retailers to chic shopping districts and high streets. She shared her insights with Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Steve McLinden.

Tell us a little about your firm and retail-tenant attraction.

Retail attraction constitutes about 90% of my clients now. There is increasing demand for it. I have been doing this for a long time now, and my lengthy marketing background has helped me put together sophisticated, targeted electronic marketing packages for retailers that really catch the eye. These are short — you can’t send out 25-page physical documents anymore — but they work. The last two or three deals I did, tenants never set foot in the building. Not long ago, retailers would look at Google Earth or talk with tenants and these sort of things as the big part of their due diligence before a site visit, but physical tours are becoming less common today.

What other services do you offer?

Business development, brokerage and public relations. My PR work is mostly for new stores, where I can call upon my many national contacts with trade organizations and other retail groups. Some clients hire me for business development to connect their industry business with retail contacts, or some clients hire me specifically to develop retail tenant mixes or strategic marketing plans. You might wonder why I’d offer that. Well, most times, the brokerage still has to find a real estate person, so they’ll probably be talking to me shortly anyway, especially if there’s a deal in the works.

What are some of the retailers who’ve recently landed in projects you’ve marketed?

I’ve been fortunate in bringing CB2, Crate & Barrel’s urban concept, to the Shopping District in downtown Birmingham, [Michigan]. Its opening has been delayed by supply chain issues, but they’ll be ready by February. Then there’s Brilliant Earth — a top, ethically sourced fine jeweler — which opened its first Michigan store in downtown Birmingham. Faherty — an upscale men’s, women’s and children’s apparel store — also came in.

What’s different today about selling a site to retailers compared to when you first got into the field?

Gone are the days when someone just needed a For Lease sign and a phone. Cities have become very picky about the tenants they want, and this requires a much greater depth of knowledge and broader skill sets than before. You almost have to be a private eye to find the specific tenant contact in a retail company these days. Fortunately, I already have a great database, and chances are if I don’t have a contact, I know somebody who does.

What are retailers looking for in a deal today compared to the recent past?

They want shorter lease terms. While a lot of developers are still hanging on to the idea of 10-year deals, I have to tell you that there are fewer and fewer of those. Most retailers are looking at five-year or seven-year terms, tops. Tenant mix is another thing that’s very critical. In fact, compatible co-tenancy is as important as rent in the location decisions. On the flip side, less desirable co-tenants are big deterrents.

How would you characterize the market for urban retail?

Rents and leasing activity are up. With all the economic pressures — such as gas prices, inflation and worries about a recession — you might expect a slowdown, but these indicators have been surprisingly good. While retailers may want shorter terms, they’re still plugging forward and doing deals. That said … you always wonder if something else big can go wrong. But when you see retailers like Allbirds, an online shoe store, aggressively looking for locations across the U.S., plus a bunch of other digital retailers expanding to brick-and-mortar, you have to be encouraged. These digital retailers know they’ll see their sales increase from three to four times with physical stores. In apparel, where about 30% of customer purchases are returned, retailers also know that many customers, like me, prefer to return items to a physical store, which gives them an opportunity to make more sales.

You’ve also started working with Naples, Florida’s Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District to market the upscale shopping area to prospective tenants. Insights?

Naples hasn’t been easy because of a lack of national tenants. But Fifth Avenue South, which for good reason is called the crown jewel of Naples, is a very popular and charming historic district that is walkable, and it offers a little bit of everything from boutiques to great restaurants. So we have a great product to sell. We’re in search of additional, select national brands for Naples.

You’re also doing work for the city of Longwood, Florida, near Orlando, in a retail project at the site of a former dog racing track.

They hired us to help bring in new retail concepts that aren’t in the Orlando market to the site. Since Orlando is such a major tourist destination and so many retailers want to be in the market, one of the challenges will be finding some that aren’t already there. There aren’t many gaps. But as far as residential goes, just about every corner has a major project, and that will really help. The site also has light rail.

You worked with General Growth Properties, then went on to The Forbes Co. and Schostak Brothers before launching CC Consulting. How do lessons from those days apply to what you do today?

My roles with those companies all related to marketing. I was involved with property tours and attracting retail. Through all of that, I learned to speak the language of retail attraction. I lived through enough deals to know what retailers want, what they’re looking for in [tenant improvement] allowances and how to arrive at mutually beneficial deals instead of just settling on what the brokers want. I know not to try to force the issue if it looks like something is not going to work. All those previous experiences have helped me immensely today.

You deal in upscale retailers. Can you give us a little insight into their post-COVID location strategies?

Yes, don’t come alone. With retailers only doing a limited number of deals, most national luxury retailers don’t want to go into a high-end development by themselves. Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci want to come in groups of two or three, so you have to plan a couple of extra spaces.

When interviewed by Authority magazine for a story called Thriving as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Industry, you cited perseverance and toughness as factors that help you compete in what’s still a white-male dominated profession. Do you see this changing?

I do. ICSC and other organizations are committing to this, and that’s not always been the case. Many companies still aren’t though. More than ever, the industry needs diversity to make for better-rounded businesses that truly reflect their customers. They absolutely have to change with the times and keep an open mind. Still, most of the top retail executives remain men. That used to be the case in other fields such as medicine and law, but look how that’s changed. I remember doing a deal with Victoria’s Secret, and everyone I dealt with was male. ‘This is women’s lingerie,’ I thought, ‘and all the decisionmakers are men.’ The cosmetic industry was the same. This is changing, but in luxury retail, it’s still mostly male.

What’s next in retailer recruitment?

I’m looking forward to what I think will be the next phase of retail. I see new retailers, many of them online, aggressively filling physical spaces that emptied out in the pandemic. And more and more of these digital companies are going to continue to expand into stores over the next 10 years, I believe. The new Amazon Style concept is one of them. They are going to open a whole slew of stores; some we know of and some we don’t. Clearly, brick-and-mortar is never going away because shopping will always be a tactile experience.

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