Pedestrian expert walks the walk
FT’s own Tom Kaiser keeps his eye out for urban tales in franchising.
You’d never guess based on his unassuming look, but Peter Bruce is not your average pedestrian. He’s watching you walk down the sidewalk or through a shopping center, and taking notes—how fast you’re going, what catches your eye, what storefronts you do or don’t inspect and, more globally, how retailers, shopping center developers and city planners can do a better job appealing to us civilian street dwellers.
As the owner of Minneapolis-based Pedestrian Studies and Projects, Bruce intentionally dresses to blend in with the crowd. Rather than wearing a bright neon vest to announce his presence, his uniform consists of comfortable New Balance shoes, a notepad and a little clicker in his pocket that he uses to conduct pedestrian count studies on behalf of building owners, franchisors, municipalities and real estate brokers.
Combining foot traffic counts with an eye on successful retail and city design, Bruce’s daily work is admittedly wonkish, but an afternoon spent walking around with him in the trendy Uptown shopping district of Minneapolis illustrated the small differences that separate successful stores or shopping centers from those preparing for their final sale.
“I call it the absence of intrigue,” Bruce said. “You have to tell the shopper from across the street why they should walk to your side of the street.”
Our foot-based tour began by checking out the scene inside a smaller-scale, enclosed shopping mall in one of the hottest retail districts in the city. It was lunchtime during the week, and things were eerily quiet aside from a custodian, security guard and a few isolated shoppers walking the hallways between the potpourri of local and chain stores.
Peter Bruce takes a moment to count pedestrians outside a Minneapolis coffee counter.
Scanning each corridor, he pointed out the good and the bad, with a focus on a lack of signage that subconsciously tells the brain there’s nothing to see. As he explained, I realized we’re all mice in a maze, and need the periodic scrap of cheese to keep us pushing onward
“You only walk to something your eyes tell you is there,” he added. “Sometimes you can have faith there’s something around the corner because you’ve seen a map, but when you’re out shopping casually you’re not thinking about what’s around the corner unless you’ve already been there. A new visitor to a shopping area really has to be led with signage.”
Those little bits of cheddar are generally small tweaks to a storefront that landlords or store owners can implement with minimal expense: burst of bright color, sight lines showing as much of the store as possible, public art, unique awnings, informational placards, or basic signs proclaiming “More cool stuff this way!”
The lowest-hanging fruit for retail streetscapes, he said, are stores with obscured windows, including painted window or vinyl applications that showcase a solitary item for sale, rather than the store’s pleasing design, full range of products, like-minded shoppers or sale items that might draw somebody in from the sidewalk or hallway.
“Beyond that, on street fronts, it’s important to have good signage, color that accents the storefront and nighttime lighting—a lot of people don’t do signs that light up even after they’re gone from the store,” he said. “You can still get people’s attention that they should come back again.”
Out on the street at the intersection of Lake and Hennepin—the city’s most bustling retail node—Bruce points out a store with a glittering, bedazzled front, but we can’t tell what’s inside. Apparently, it’s a restaurant, but we never figured out the name. Next door, the fancy, new Victoria’s Secret looks more like a bank, he said, with several obscured windows and no internal signs of life.
“Tinted window glass,” he says, with frustration. “You can’t tell how nice it is in there from the windows—and it’s a beautiful store!”
Only the outdoors retailers, Columbia and The North Face, knew what’s up with transparent, unobscured windows and projecting, lit signs that help draw pedestrians down toward the south end of this retail district.
While I’m focused on keeping up with Bruce and shaking a persistent panhandler, he points out everything that’s good or off-putting as we continue our stroll through the adjacent blocks of stores and restaurants.
In explaining his academic roots, Bruce said the urban buzzword du jour—walkability—is a term rooted in transportation planning that applies to things like sidewalk width and safety. His world of pedestrian studies is a much wider look at the space, incorporating greater verticality, design and even things unseen or missing from the streetscape—little things that he promises can make a huge difference in daily foot traffic.
“What I’m doing is trying to put together the whole experience of walking,” he said. “What you could see in colors and pavement markings—all of that can be put together in some way that makes people more comfortable walking between some lonely part of the block—and that is like a theater experience.”
It’s every store’s responsibility and obligation to its bottom line to make sure that being a pedestrian is an experience, be it indoor within a mall or strip center, or out here on the streets.
Tom Kaiser is associate editor of Franchise Times, and writes The Urbane Franchisor column in each issue. Reach him at email@example.com.