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Study finds that Mississippians

Regional shopping hubs vs. small town Mississippi

When the Lamar County Economic Development District (LCEDD) undertook a statewide retail analysis to survey trends in apparel and general merchandise sales, the idea was to identify opportunities for the county. But the information derived from the report has implications statewide.

In a nutshell, the report indicates that in the past 20 years the shopping habits of Mississippians have changed drastically. There have been big winners — and losers — as a result. The winners are counties that have become regional shopping hubs such as Lamar, Madison, Harrison, Rankin and DeSoto. The big losers are the Hinds, Forrest, Washington, Coahoma and Jasper counties.

Hinds County fared the worst with a loss of 137,485 in “population capture” for the category measured, apparel and general merchandise sales. Those shoppers were likely lost to Madison County, which gained 80,600 in population capture, and Rankin County, which gained about 37,000 in population capture.

In Hattiesburg, Lamar County’s population capture gain of 158,500 came partly at the expense of Forrest County, which lost 63,300. Smaller counties surrounding Lamar County suffered perhaps even more proportionally as residents started spending more of their shopping dollars away from home at Turtle Creek Mall and other popular retail outlets in the Lamar County portion of Hattiesburg on Highway 98 West.

“The figures seem to present a dramatic shift from rural to urban,” said Mark Goodman, commercial development director for the LCEDD. “This is something we all kind of know is happening, but haven’t necessarily quantified before in terms of sales capture and pull factors.”

Goodman said the district undertook the study in order to identify areas of opportunity in retail. By looking at what other similar sized areas in the state offer, Lamar County can see how it compares and identify opportunities for retail recruitment.

Twenty years ago Lamar was a very rural county. The population was stagnant.

Then Methodist Hospital moved out to Highway 98, subdivisions like Lake Serene and later Canebrake caused rapid residential growth, and retail outlets including the Turtle Creek Mall followed the population growth. By 2000, as a result, Lamar County had the highest change in percentage of increased sales in the apparel/general merchandise category in the state.

In the category studied, the Lamar County portion of the Hattiesburg Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) now has much higher sales than the Forrest County portion of the Hattiesburg MSA. Lamar County went from being 16th from the bottom of the state in the category to fourth from the top. Other top gainers in the percentage of increased sales were Madison, DeSoto, Rankin, Tate, Neshoba and Hancock counties.

“What appears to be happening here in this time span is a changing retail environment across the state,” Goodman said. “In 1980 you had a lot more retail pull at local levels supporting their own population in terms of apparel and general merchandise. In the past 20 years that is getting concentrated into key destination shopping areas across the state. Retailers are on top of this trend and are locating in places like the Bonita Lakes Mall in Meridian and Turtle Creek Mall in Hattiesburg. It is easier for someone to travel farther these days, and they are spending more on a trip away from home, even buying things they can buy at home. The smaller markets are feeling the pain of this trend in retail.”

When communities lose sales, they also lose sales tax rebate dollars. And with many of the state’s smaller towns, sales tax rebates are the majority of their budget.

Blake Wallace, president of the LCEDD, said on average the smaller counties are seeing up to 90% of their trade dollars leaking out.

“The shoppers are being attracted by some other opportunity, probably one of these regional centers,” Wallace said. “Everyone needs to understand the dynamic that is happening. These are consumer-driven decisions that are making it really tough in places like Stone and Perry counties. A similar trend is being seen across the country. It is even worse in some other areas of the country.”

What can be done? That’s a difficult question to answer. Aggressive shop-at-home campaigns can be launched. Some work; some don’t.

Unfortunately, there can be a snowball effect, too. If stores in small towns aren’t getting enough business and have to shut down, it feeds more growth to regional shopping centers.

Wallace said another factor that hurts is that, more than likely, businesses in small communities don’t have any volume buying abilities, so the price of products locally would be higher than at regional shopping centers.

Apparel and general merchandise consists of the following specific categories: department stores, automatic merchandising, direct selling, general merchandise, men’s and boys clothing, women’s and girls clothing, children’s and infants clothing, shoe stores and apparel accessories.

The study does not cover sales in the other retail groupings such as automotive, machinery and equipment, food and beverage, furniture, lumber and building materials. LCEDD chose apparel and general merchandise as that grouping best represents the bulk of growth in Lamar County. But Wallace and Goodman think it would be interesting to do a similar study for other retail groupings.

Grocery sales can be particularly important.

“If a community starts losing grocery sales, that is really serious,” Goodman said. “If the market is so weak that a grocery store finally closes down, then you’re down to bare bones.”

The size of a community isn’t the only consideration regarding the ability to keep shoppers at home. The distance between a town and a larger regional shopping center can make a difference. For example, Waynesboro has a larger center, Laurel, on one side of it, but no larger centers in three other directions.

“So they pull in an exceptional amount of sales for a community of their size,” Goodman said. “Their pull factor is actually increasing. It isn’t simply being a small community that you don’t succeed and experience leakage. Other factors include your location relative to one of the major regional shopping areas.”

Wallace adds that another factor can be termed “critical mass”. If a small town has enough variety of different things such as restaurants, banks, and stores, people won’t feel as great a need to travel farther away regularly to shop.

Wallace and Goodman believe the state would benefit from mapping retail sales trends to identify clusters. That would help, for example, with transportation planning to avoid traffic congestion coming into the area. They add that the same information would be valuable for communities when applying for grant funds. A lack of sales tax rebates could be a greater incentive to provide a community with grant funds for support.

The information could also be a wake up call to some of the larger areas losing shoppers such as Hinds County.

“Hinds County had 137,000 fewer shoppers in apparel and general merchandise than it had 20 years ago,” Wallace said. “That’s a lot of dollars for Hinds County to be losing.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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