In a fast-changing retail economy, downtown Ithaca is leading the way.
A number of years ago, in their provocative book The Experience Economy, business strategists Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore heralded the arrival of a new economic era. They argued that “businesses that relegate themselves to the diminishing world of goods and services will be rendered irrelevant. To avoid this fate, you must learn to stage a rich, compelling experience.”
Today, business leaders agree that the experience economy has indeed arrived. With the continued rapid rise of e-commerce — $262 billion of goods were purchased via the internet last year, up from $231 billion the year before – enterprising bricks-and-mortar retailers grasp the need to provide customers with a memorable, personalized shopping experience that you can’t get online.
With over 70 one-of-a-kind, independent shops – many of them located in charming historic buildings along the soon-to-be-renovated Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall – downtown Ithaca is one of Upstate New York’s most dynamic commercial hubs. Says Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “It’s a great place to explore and engage in what I call experiential shopping.”
Ferguson reports that visitors from more populous urban areas in the region, like greater Rochester and Binghamton, are the fastest-growing segment of patrons for the downtown Ithaca retail marketplace. “It’s not because they seek basic goods from national retailers. They have plenty of those. Rather, they seek the unique, multi-sensorial quality that our walkable shopping district has to offer.”
F. Oliver’s Oils and Vinegars, a new boutique on the Ithaca Commons, is a prime example of experiential shopping. Says manager Sara Wagner, “Fresh, well-made olive oils and vinegars are impossible to describe; they must be tasted. At F. Oliver’s you can stop by for a guided tasting tour to experience an abundance of enticing flavors and smells – or just some advice from an experienced home cook or a smile and a chat.”
Ian Golden, owner of Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Company, says that while online running shoe sales have risen steadily, many avid runners continue to shop in-store. “Here, you can get a full expert assessment of your running mechanics, foot anatomy, and possible injuries, and you can actually feel how the different shoe models fit. A slightly better deal online wouldn’t be worth the hassle.”
Ithaca Guitar Works also has much to offer that online instrument warehouses cannot. “Playing and inspecting is essential. A huge selection of stringed instruments can be auditioned in our private trial booth, and every one of them is carefully adjusted before being displayed. They also come with 90 days of free adjustments after the sale – right here, quickly, in-house. And besides, prices here are very competitive.”
Concludes Kris Lewis, a veteran downtown apparel merchant and the current Director of Retail at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “Interacting with a knowledgeable human being who can give you a taste of smoky chipotle-infused olive oil, or fit you with the correct running shoe for your high arches, or help you try out ten different banjos for your new bluegrass band – you just can’t do that on your iPhone. As downtown Ithaca builds for its future, experiential retailing will be an essential element.”