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The following blog post is a guest post by Roslindale resident Carter Wilke, who was president of the Board of Roslindale Village Main Street from 2007-2011, currently serves on the RVMS Advisory Board, and is co-author of Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.

By Carter Wilkie

City sidewalks are under retailed, and suburban highways are over saturated. That's why a retail war is being waged across the U.S. for the loyalty of urban Millennial shoppers (the children of the Baby Boomers). This contest pits Amazon Prime on one front and Target on another.

Old style suburban malls have already lost the battle. Wal-Mart and other big box retailers are too far removed from this valuable urban demographic to have much of a chance. Whether Amazon or Target wins will shape the retail landscape in city neighborhoods for years to come.

Read a financial report on the health of retail real estate, and you will see analysts declaring the death of outdated shopping centers. Sears, the anchor store of many lower grade malls, is reportedly ready for bankruptcy protection, after losing too much business to catalog clothiers, category killers (think Best Buy for appliances or Lowes for home improvement) and now Amazon Prime.

Amazon is an empire that strikes fear into the heart of every retail business in America large and small, even Wal-Mart, the big box behemoth that is struggling to compete with Amazon for online purchases. Wal-mart has an edge on the ground, with its vast distribution network of stores that have killed off mom and pop retailers and traditional main streets in rural towns. But Amazon dominates online, where the next generation of consumers will spend more money. The winner of this retail war will be the brand that crafts the best “omni-channel” retail strategy — a fancy marketing term for “bricks and clicks” — the best online presence anywhere, backed by the best local distribution network everywhere.

Having bricks and clicks to reach Millennials who live in cities is the reason Target has targeted Roslindale. A presence in zip code 02131 will give Target a beachhead to capture Millennial spending power in Boston, along with its urban format stores in the Fenway and Central Square, Cambridge. Roslindale is filling rapidly with 30-somethings and their young and growing households. These two-income urban families don’t have time or energy to drive to suburbia to shop as much as their parents used to, especially in an age when the convenience of Amazon Prime is only one click away.

To compete with Amazon Prime, Target’s smaller urban stores will become nodes in a new model to capture online shoppers. Click on Target’s web site, make your purchase, and it will be shipped to your neighborhood store for delivery. Want to make a return? Skip the post office and take it to Target, where the retailer hopes you will spend more money on your return visit.

What does this mean for city main streets? For one, it means Target will offer merchandise in categories not currently captured by local retailers other than dollar stores: housewares, clothing, sporting goods, toys and baby supplies — the kind of goods that urban shoppers must drive to shopping centers, or go online, to buy. Target claims to give local managers flexibility to adjust the retail mix to suit area demographics. A location with lots of young families can expect aisles stocked with baby supplies.

At the same time, however, Target will try to capture more of the shopper’s wallet by offering groceries and medicines, as Wal-Mart does under one roof. This means more competition for local grocers and independent pharmacies. Some will bemoan the arrival of another chain. Others, like me, will remember our childhoods in the 1970s when every main street had its Woolworth five and dime. Some consumers will welcome the new retail competition. Others, like me, will continue to buy groceries at Village Market, the anchor store that brings more foot traffic to our sidewalks than any other business.  Without the Village Market, our district would be half empty.

The net effect of the new Target, I predict, will be to strengthen Roslindale’s retail economy by becoming another anchor store at the lower Washington Street end of the district. The challenge, and opportunity, for neighboring businesses will be how to lure Target shoppers into their front doors. 

Online retailing doesn't offer local businesses that opportunity. Every purchase I make on Amazon Prime siphons dollars out of the community and reduces foot traffic on our sidewalks. Foot traffic is vital for mom and pop shops to thrive in a walkable main street district.

To attract that kind of foot traffic, enclosed malls are being turned inside out. Look at Legacy Place in Dedham and how it seeks to mimic a walkable main street environment, albeit in a sea of asphalt. Roslindale Village is the real thing, that rare kind of walkable place sought out by Millenials in the 21st century.

Amazon Books and Amazon Kindle killed off most of the independent bookstores in America. In the next retail war, Target’s urban format stores may be main street’s best defense against Amazon Prime. Consumers have choices of where to shop. Collectively, they will determine what our communities will look like in a generation. Your shopping habits, where you spend your money, will decide which places ultimately win in the end.