May 18, 2015

'Destination' stores putting MetroWest on the map

Let's say you're shopping for commercial or residential property to buy in the MetroWest region. You're trying to decide between two very similar towns.

The schools all check out. You're happy with the commute time both offer to and from work. But when you drive through one community, you see a Dollar Tree store. A McDonalds. A Big Y. In the next town, however, there's a Pier 1. A Panera. And a Trader Joe's. Which town do you go with?

Retailers that are considered more upscale brands — such as Cabela's in Berlin, Whole Foods now on its way to Shrewsbury, and the Wegmans in Northborough — may bring with them a lot more than top-notch sporting goods, organic Portobello mushrooms and gluten-free bread, experts say. They give the area a deeper shine from which realtors, developers and communities can benefit.

First-class image

PHOTO/EMILY MICUCCI
Upscale sporting-goods outfitter Cabela’s opened in Berlin in March.

"When a community has premium-branded entities, the community itself is perceived to be a more premium, or affluent, community," said Laura Briere, CEO of Vision Advertising of Central Mass., which serves clients in MetroWest and beyond. Premium brands usher in a new baseline expectation for how people can now expect to be treated, said Briere. "This has widespread community impact in terms of mindset, property values and service expectations across the board."

Area real estate agents see this premium-brand effect in potential buyers' reactions and feedback while showing properties.

Claire Bett, a realtor with Southborough-based Realty Executives West, talks up an area's shopping to potential buyers when showing a property. "It's never a deal breaker," she pointed out, if an upper-echelon store is present or not, but used as confirmation of an already-held opinion that a community is special. "We say there's shopping nearby. But if we can say it's a Roche Bros. — well, that's a plus."

Bett — a resident of Hopkinton — has seen this exclusive brand recognition at work in her own town as well.

A few years ago, a new supermarket was constructed in Hopkinton, on West Main Street. When news surfaced that the structure was to be a Price Chopper, people were not happy, Bett said. "People wanted Roche Bros. in particular. Or a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. They were very upset and did not feel Price Chopper reflected the town; that people would say, 'Oh (the town) is not as good as I thought.' "

As a result, according to Bett, there are people in Hopkinton who don't shop at Price Chopper, but instead travel to Route 9 and patronize Whole Foods and other stores.

Loyal customers

This level of brand loyalty is no accident, but rather the end result of strategic marketing, says Briere, which has less to do with prices and more to do with the psychology of "premium customers."

"(These stores) fill a need or want for a better way to shop, better way to be treated, and a higher standard," whereas bargain shopping is the opposite, with no exclusivity and inferior products or service, according to Briere.

In addition to attracting premium customers, upscale businesses attract other upscale businesses, as well, said Kristen Las, Shrewsbury's town planner and economic development coordinator. She pointed to Lakeway Commons, which is being developed at the former Spag's site by Grossman Development Group. With Whole Foods as the anchor, Starbucks and Burton's Grill — arguably more exclusive brands as well — signed on as future tenants, she said.

From a planning standpoint, however, the town objectively looks at zoning, not a particular tenant, for a property, Las said. The main considerations are zoning issues — such as whether overlay districts are needed — and getting planning board approval. After that, if a business such as Whole Foods decides to move in, it's a bonus, Las said.

"We've got quite a few grocery stores, but nothing like Whole Foods," she said. "That caters to a whole different market."

Signs of progress

For Maribeth Lynch, owner/broker of Thrive Real Estate Specialists of Shrewsbury, an associate member of the town's zoning board, when stores like Whole Foods open, it symbolizes progress. She has the Wegmans in Northborough as part of the standard tour she gives potential new buyers, along with driving by town hall and the park. "It's something I promote" as a selling point, she said of the supermarket.

"For people who moved from Boston, it shows we're right up there, front and center," she said. "We're looking to be valuable and give them the things they'd get in more urban settings," while keeping a small-town feel and offering better affordability, she said.

Lynch said some MetroWest communities further west may have felt inferior next to towns like Wellesley and Natick in the past, but that is changing.

"We've had to sort of explain what's so great about this area to keep up with the Joneses, but you know what? We can, darn it. We have new (amenities) every year," Lynch said."

The good quality of life — or perception of a good quality of life — that more-upscale retailers bring to MetroWest literally gives developers momentum on which to build.

Matthew Senie, partner and general manager of Riverbridge in Berlin, a 470,000-square-foot mixed-use development that abuts Solomon Pond Road off Interstate 290, is not soliciting retail tenants until the planned hotel and apartments are built at the site. Growing Room Daycare, an upscale child-care franchise, however, is up and running at Riverbridge already.

With the Riverbridge site located where it is — Cabela's on one side and Northborough's Wegmans on the other — Senie said his project gets great leverage. Before, only local tenants may have been sought to move into Riverbridge. Now, though, Senie says, Riverbridge tenants have the potential and incentive to come from anywhere, especially as Wegmans is not only a local draw, but a destination draw as well, he said.

"They will pay attention now," said Senie of potential national tenants, as opposed to being sandwiched between Dollar General stores. "Wegmans and Cabelas are power centers on either side. We didn't know any national tenants would come to Riverbridge. But success breeds success," he said. "Quality tenants to your left and right will bring you quality tenants."

And for anchor stores such as Whole Foods, says Briere of Vision Advertising, the sky is the limit once they are established in a community. These stores endear themselves by filling needs of premium customers. But, with more engagement through social media, their reach can be widened even more, accessing "new customers that may be on the fringes of their ideal customer base, but that will still love the shopping experience and be willing to come back time and time again," she said.

For Lynch — the Shrewsbury-area realtor — better brands continue to help her and other realtors impress clients, with properties that look more like the homes they want. "They think, 'There's a Starbucks here, so it must be a nice place to live,'" she said. "They feel they have arrived."

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