Aspen not alone in its retail woes | AspenTimes.com
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Aspen not alone in its retail woes

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Aspen is hardly unique among ski resorts in its recent economic struggles, but local merchants sense deeper problems than the sales data would indicate exist, according to a consultant hired to study the town’s retail environment.

About 50 retailers gathered Wednesday at the first of three meetings with a consulting team hired by the city to define those problems and suggest solutions.

For perhaps the first time in recent memory, Aspen has experienced two straight years of declining sales, noted Ford Frick of BBC Research and Consulting, a Denver firm that conducts economic feasibility and market studies.

The resort is not alone in that respect, he said, displaying graph after graph indicating ski resorts across Colorado and the West have experienced similar trends for the past decade or more.

“When we see the lines going flat in every major ski resort, we know there’s something at work,” Frick said. The downturn is not endemic to Aspen, he said.

Virtually all of the resorts have seen a decline in winter sales activity for the past two seasons; Aspen has fared better than others with its summer business, according to Frick’s analysis.

The makeup of retail sales in Aspen in 1993 and 2002 is virtually the same, he added. The percentage of sales in various categories tracked by the city – in lodging, restaurant/bar business, sports equipment/clothing sales, etc. – have remained consistent.

“The data is sort of saying life is slow, but life is slow everywhere. Things aren’t changing,” he said. “Yet when I talked to people, there’s a real sense of change.

“There is this sort of sense that the issue here is worse than the numbers,” Frick continued.

For example, though sales activity by category appears consistent, many participants in yesterday’s session complained that Aspen’s retail mix has changed for the worse – that the town’s shopping experience has deteriorated.

As Aspen looks to improve its retail climate, it really boils down to three options, according to Frick: bring in more people to shop; capture more of the spending by people who are already here; or somehow change/improve the product and the experience to entice shoppers.

Breaking into smaller groups, retailers and other members of the business community frequently noted the “downvalley drain” – locals who spend their money elsewhere (including Internet/catalog shopping) because products are cheaper and Aspen’s high-end boutiques don’t sell items that meet the average individual’s daily needs.

“There’s too much of what there is, and not enough of what there isn’t,” summed up David Durrance, owner of Durrance Sports at Aspen Highlands.

“As a local, I know if I don’t buy my books at Explore [Booksellers] or diapers at a local store, that my money is going out of our community, but it’s hard,” said Lara Whitley, with the Aspen Writer’s Foundation. A local working family operates on a budget, she said.

Stores that close for the off-season or early in the evening, even during peak seasons, are also a problem, many agreed.

If visitors come to Aspen on a late autumn weekend and find most of the shops closed, they won’t come back, predicted David Ferguson, manager of Louis Vuitton. “We’re sort of shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said.

Five top problems emerged from the discussions: a lack of cohesiveness in the hours of operation among downtown stores; a lack of retail diversity in terms of product/store mix; too many city regulations, such as its sign code; high rents/high prices; and not enough shoppers.

Though city regulations were cause for complaint, regulating the use of retail space – eliminating ground-floor offices in the core, for example – was among the four most commonly cited solutions during the brainstorming session.

Also topping the list of options to address the problems were: spend more money on marketing; review the city’s regulations; take a proactive approach to bring in the types of businesses the town would like to see; and involve Aspen’s commercial landlords in the discussion.

Garnering a handful of votes was the suggestion to add a porn shop and a head shop to the town’s retail mix.

The second breakfast meeting with the consulting team is scheduled Oct. 22 from 7 to 10 a.m. in the fifth-floor conference room at the Mountain Chalet. The physical characteristics of Aspen’s retail environment will be the focus. Attendees should RSVP to Denise Driscoll in the city Community Development Department by Oct. 15; call 920-5041.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]


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