Retail Tetris

It seems like Katlin and I both went to bed with retail on our minds.

In Seattle, suggesting even second-floor retail in a mixed-use project can make developers and lenders uneasy. Yesterday as we toured the Wan Chai neighborhood, Scott remarked on a sign advertising retail on the 23rd floor of a building.

Retail spaces here seem un-picky and haphazard. Where one space stops, the next begins, even if that results in odd corners and overflowing product displays. Store owners make do with what little and constrained spaces they have.

Of course, when your housing looks like this, it’s little wonder that even multitudes of awkwardly placed, hard-to-get-to retailers stay in business:

Still, it’s no cakewalk for those at the top. One businessman told us today that his modest ground-floor tailor shop — maybe 225 square feet, fronting a side street — isn’t selling enough to support the rent of $60,000 HK per month (roughly $7,500 US, or around $33/SF — per month!), so he is moving to an interior space on a higher floor. He said knows it’s going to hurt his business. Hidden entrepreneurs have to make a pretty compelling case to bring in new customers and attract a critical supply of repeats and referrals.

The independent shop owners here are a scrappy, resourceful bunch. Proprietors of the less-visible spaces stand doggedly on the sidewalks well into the night, pitching their services to passersby.

For those selling the more basic necessities, like this underground supermarket, an arrow or some neon bling seems to be enough:

As a result of all this frenetic advertising and wayfinding, navigating the retail scene here is a little like a scavenger hunt: follow little clues and hope to connect with someone who will tip you off to the real finds. Not only is it difficult to find the same thing twice; it’s likely that when you try, you’ll stumble across a different but perfectly acceptable substitute for whatever you wanted in the first place.

It certainly keeps life at the street level exciting.

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