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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane will mine shopping data to see what’s missing downtown

Downtown merchants are about to learn how people spend money in Spokane.

By tapping into hard data about what shops, restaurants and experiences tourists and local residents are looking for, the business community hopes to take the guesswork out of marketing and strengthen downtown’s appeal.

The insights from consumer analytics company Buxton will be used to refine strategies to recruit new businesses and keep existing ones. After a close look at the downtown core, Buxton will provide a similar analysis of shopping and dining preferences along the North Monroe and East Sprague corridors.

“The idea is how do we help our existing businesses understand, to the fullest potential that they can, consumer behaviors so that they can properly stock their shelves,” said Mark Richard, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. “And if they’re in the service industry, so they can fine-tune their delivery of service to meet their customers’ interests.”

Downtown Spokane Partnership has teamed up with Visit Spokane, the city’s Planning and Parks and Recreation departments, Spokane Public Library and River Park Square on a three-year, $150,000 contract with Buxton to provide the consumer data. Business owners will be trained how to mine the information, which will be shared free of charge.

“It can be applied to everything from purchasing clothes and makeup and food, to health care services and recreational services,” said Juliet Sinisterra, business development manager for Downtown Spokane Partnership, a private, nonprofit membership organization that serves as Spokane’s central city advocate and service provider.

“That’s one of the reasons we brought in such a wide variety of partners, because a lot of these agencies are seeing the value to them in their own development,” Sinisterra said. “I know (city) parks, for instance, is really looking to expand some of their recreation offerings, and this is a great way to understand the market much better.”

And Visit Spokane, she said, hopes to gain insights into what tourists spend when they come to Spokane, “and what we are spending when we go to Seattle,” she said.

The data also could prove beneficial to local health care providers, Richard said.

“For the first time we’re going to have data that allows the company or organization to see what I’m doing when I’m leaving town,” he said. “For instance, if I’m going to the University of Washington (in Seattle) to buy some sort of health care treatment, Providence or Deaconess can now track that and see where’s that leakage in the health care industry.”

Businesses in the fast-growing University District also could gain an advantage with access to the data, Richard said.

“If you think about many college students, their credit card is associated with their home address. So with current systems, we don’t know what they’re buying here because it’s showing up as a ZIP code back home,” he said. “Here we’ll be able to track that for point-of-sale, so we’ll be able for the first time to really see what our college students are buying, what their needs are.

“And then local businesses and those that are interested in opening a business will be able to mine that data and build or grow around that data.”

Such precise information on consumer spending used to be exploited predominantly by national retail chains.

“This is how those type of retailers were able to grow and expand and build their market,” Sinisterra said.

Now Buxton offers the service to municipalities for the general benefit of businesses in those communities. Other clients include Tulsa, Oklahoma; Pasadena, California; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Buxton buys the data in aggregated form from companies such as Visa; it excludes any identifying information about customers.

“This data already is being collected and used,” Richard said. “We’re simply buying into getting access to it to make our city stronger economically, to grow jobs.”

The retail analysis as well as a visitor spending analysis are due around the end of April. For this first year of the program, Buxton will recommend about 20 retailers that would be ideal for downtown Spokane.

“Because we are making a big push to attract more housing into downtown, we’re really looking at services that can support that complete living situation,” Sinisterra said.

That may include pet services such as doggy day care and grooming, pharmacies, dry cleaners, package shipping stores and smaller bank branches spread more strategically throughout downtown, she said.

“Just things that make it very easy for people to walk and live among the services that they need every day,” she said. “And of course we’d love to see some more small grocers come in.”

When Downtown Spokane Partnership previously has sought public opinion on what the city center lacks, some of the more popular suggestions have been a Cheesecake Factory; something like a Dave & Buster’s, the restaurant/sports bar/arcade chain; and a place to buy household goods, such as a small-scale Target store.

Richard said he can see the program helping local entrepreneurs make smarter leasing decisions.

“We had a guy about a year ago that was wanting to open a coffee shop,” he said. “He was looking for that sweet spot, because there are a lot of coffee shops downtown.”

The Buxton data can be viewed as a map showing the density of types of spending – the kind of tool that could make all that difference for a lean startup.

Bryn West, the general manager of River Park Square, said she’s interested in seeing the analytics portion of the Buxton software.

“We as a shopping center typically like to do some kind of research every few years to get a good idea what our customers are buying, where they’re coming from, what they’re looking for,” West said. “So partnering with this group made sense for us to be able to get in on some of the data that they’re able to collect.”

The downtown retail center is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

“I think it would be great also from a small-business standpoint, because the software is supposed to give us an idea of where we may have voids in our retail lineup,” West said Monday. “So it will be a great tool … for young entrepreneurs that are looking to start a business, to look at that data and understand there’s space available in this particular genre of retail because it’s not being currently serviced.”

As an online-only retailer with few local sales, Hustle & Hide Co. of Spokane wouldn’t normally benefit from a local retail analysis. But the leather bag manufacturer is planning to be part of a craft-themed pop-up shop opening April 7 at Lincoln Street and Second Avenue by the Steam Plant shopping and dining center.

Knowing more about the shopping habits of locals and visitors would be useful in that new venture, founder Teddi Cripps said.

“We can get a gauge for people visiting in the summertime and know what seasons are best, because the pop-up shop will be on a month-by-month basis,” Cripps said. “We could even choose to do specific seasons based on the buying patterns of the Spokane community.”

Buxton will work with Downtown Spokane Partnership and its partners on how to use the data for market research and analysis. The library will provide computer terminals and training for businesspeople who want to tap into the data.

“For us to be successful, people have to use this,” Richard said. “Come to a training, come to an open house we schedule and check it out. The only way we’re going to be able to sustain it is if we can demonstrate it’s delivering benefit to our businesses.”