Local grocery retailer identifies need for store in downtown Columbus

Retail can be a tough business. Retail in an urban area like downtown Columbus can be even tougher.

The Hills Market announced today that it’s opening a brand new grocery store downtown next spring, which leaves us asking, ” Are they a little bit crazy, or are they ahead of the curve and on to something big?”

“What really makes me bullish about the Hills Market arrival is it’s location in the very under-retailed east side of downtown,” says Chris Boring, owner of Boulevard Strategies, a local economic and retail analysis company. “My previous research indicates that there are about 35,000 students that attend classes at Columbus State Community College, Franklin University, the Columbus College of Art & Design, Capital University, and the Grant Nursing School.”

Boring points out that those 35,000 students are the equivalent size of a Big Ten university.

“Prepared foods and ‘grab and go’ offerings will be attractive to the student population who are looking for a quick meal and groceries on the way home from campus,” says Kacey Brankamp, retail recruiter for the Capital Crossroads Special Improvement District. “I also predict that we’ll see the downtown workforce view The Hills Market as another lunch spot in addition to being a place to pick up specialty groceries.”

According to research conducted by Boulevard Strategies, downtown currently has about 6,200 residents, which alone are not enough to support a full-size big box grocery chain. But other potential customers that exist within a half-mile radius of this site include 5,000 faculty and staff members at nearby colleges, about 15,000 other office workers, 5,000 service workers, and 3,600 average daily visitors to the nearby Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus Museum of Art, and Grant Hospital. Additionally, residents who live in adjacent neighborhoods contribute an extra 65,000 potential customers to the mix.

“We estimate that about 75,000 persons set foot within a half-mile of the intersection of Gay Street and Grant Avenue each weekday,” says Boring. “
Hills is unique and upscale enough that it could also draw from Olde Towne East, Bexley, German Village, Grandview Heights, and the Short North, especially on the weekends.”

Management at The Hills Market is planning accordingly and working to keep its target customer base broad and appealing across all demographics in the area.

“It’s tough to say who exactly our customer will be besides the residents currently living downtown,” says Kyle Baker, co-owner of The Hills Market and managing partner for The Hills Market Downtown. “We’re designing the store with caution, making decisions to allow us to easily mold to the folks who end up shopping at the store one, two, five and 10 years from now.”

The Hills Market is no stranger to the grocery retail market, having opened its store near Worthington in 1993. It also has experience with successfully expanding into new locations and developing concepts to fit different audiences.

“We currently own and operate three different stores that are very different from The Hills Market— Marengo Country Market and Fredericktown Market located north of Columbus, and the Hudson Street Market in the Linden area,” Baker says. “We’re very experienced at serving the needs of different communities and plan on having strong interaction with our initial and future customers to make sure that we carry the items and provide the services that they desire.”

Unlike its other locations, the new store planned for downtown Columbus will retain the same Hills Market brand and identity.

“Our logo, events, commitment to customer service and feel of the store will all be similar,” Baker says. “We worked with the folks at Big Red Rooster to make sure that the feel of the store is consistent with what we have at the original Hills Market.”

Downtown retail analysts are confident that a new grocery tenant will serve as an anchor for additional retail development.

“I think Hills may be more of an indirect catalyst to further downtown development,” Boring says. “It will help the housing market, and adding more residential units is the single best thing anyone can do to help downtown retailers.”

Boring says the average person will spend six times more money on retail near their home versus near their place of employment, and that they will spend it across a wider variety of retail categories including home, fashion, and leisure goods, not just on food and other convenience items like office workers.

“I have no doubt that The Hills Market will act as an anchor and magnet for the Gay Street and Grant Avenue corridors,” Brankamp says. “I think that the biggest challenge will be having available space to meet the demand from interested business owners. If there is ready-to-lease space in that area, I think we’ll see it leased rather quickly.”

Baker agrees with that sentiment.

“In terms of retailing, downtown is a chicken-versus-egg situation,” he says. “Urban pioneers desire convenience and retail, and retailers require residents. But with this new opportunity to change the face of downtown Columbus, we expect changes on the retail front to happen sooner rather than later.”

The Hills Market Downtown will open in Spring 2012. More info at TheHillsMarket.com.