Strip malls see favor with small businesses in Grand Forks
In the next year, Grand Forks will add at least three strip malls to its landscape.
The city appears to be following a national trend that shows strip malls are becoming more popular, though that may not mean it's because shoppers want to go to the line of stores.
“I think it is just a neutral place,” said Eric Olson, who is building a strip mall on South Washington Street, when asked if customers prefer strip malls. “It’s just a way smaller retail businesses, in particular service-type businesses, can enjoy some cost-savings on land prices.”
Shopping habits have changed with the rise of the online retail and so has the philosophy behind building structures for businesses. In Grand Forks, developers have built 11 strip malls in the past five years.
“There does seem to be a national trend for strip malls versus the traditional shopping centers,” said Brad Gengler, Grand Forks’ director of planning and community development.Cost-saving measures
The experience of shopping has changed, said David Flynn, UND Economics Department chair. Fewer people browse for items like they once did at malls, he said.
“If the mall is not generating pedestrian traffic, you might be better off having a location in a strip mall,” he said. “I don’t think people are spending the afternoon at the mall.”
The data on whether strip malls are doing better than shopping mall centers or standalone stores are mixed, Flynn said. Stores still are filling malls in less-urban places, like Grand Forks, home to Columbia Mall, but malls in general aren’t generating the foot traffic they used to.
As technology advances and the habits of customers change, businesses may not necessarily need, or afford, a large footprint to sell their products, Olson said. So they may look to a location that has a lower price tag attached to it.
Olson has contracted local construction workers to build a strip mall at 1403 S. Washington St., the site of the former Lucky Inn Motel. That site will include a Jimmy John’s, and Olson will be a partner in the sandwich shop. He hopes it will open later this summer.
It’s uncertain what else will go there.
More toward the center of Grand Forks, construction crews are working on the Columbia Commons at 1970 S. Columbia Road. That’s where Borrowed Bucks Roadhouse closed last May, but Fargo businessmen plan to bring a Vinyl Taco, a bank and other retail to that location.
Strip malls can serve as a quick stop that is visible to customers, Flynn said, though depending on what the customer wants to buy, it typically doesn’t matter where the store is as long as it is accessible.
“I think the general consumer wants what they want,” he said. “I think they will go where they want to go.
“I think what is going on in many of these circumstances and situations, if I’m interested in going to a mall, I don’t necessarily go for the casual shopping experience that I used to do,” he said, adding that can change the landscape of retail development. “I go for something specific.”
However, Olson felt customers aren’t searching out or avoiding strip malls.
“It’s really about making more efficient use of space,” he said.Future of shopping
Gengler said the city encourages retail in general, though it has a plan on how it wants the city to develop and where it wants certain structures to go.
“We like to see them close to other retail and commercial operations in general,” he said.
Gengler and Flynn foresee the strip mall trend continuing, but other structures could make their way into the area depending on demand.
Flynn said building up with denser, mixed use developments -- tall buildings with businesses and residential units -- is starting to spread across the country.
Talks of building up have reached Grand Forks, Gengler said -- developers hope to build a five-story building with condominiums and retail space on the Arbor Park location.
“That is an example of a developer wanting to do something that is more unique to our setting and comparable to the projects in Fargo,” he said.
Still, Flynn doesn’t see strip malls going away if there is land available. And there is a lot of commercially zoned property sitting vacant in Grand Forks, Gengler said.
“If shoppers don’t want that experience … then it is not going to be a terribly successful venture,” Flynn said.