Retail Summit 2017: Unapologetically Columbus

Embracing where you’ve landed
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Posted August 18, 2017

Let’s all stop apologizing for being from a cool Midwest city. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, (sorry, not sorry). I know a lot of articles have been written on how Columbus is so great. In fact, even National Geographic did an article last year on Columbus’ potential to become millennials’ next sought-after city. Did you also know that it is a hot bed for retail design and an incredible place to find design talent?

At the third annual Retail Summit downtown at the Columbus Convention Center, I was reminded of this by Alberto Scirocco from Leftchannel (a Columbus-based company) in his presentation, “Who’s Afraid of Columbus?” He discussed the shocking truth that a lot of would-be clients are somehow convinced that there is more creative credibility in New York or Los Angeles – and that we are enabling this belief (and doing this to ourselves) by saying “Sorry, we’re from Columbus.” I got to thinking why are we apologizing for being from a midsize city? Is it not enough? Or is it? In my mind, midsized cities are just as valid.

I had this very conversation with one of my design friends from Columbus who moved to LA, and we came to the conclusion that there were a few common perceived hurdles that needed to be addressed. Read below, and take to heart these Columbus (substitute any hip, up-and-coming midsize city) truths, find the threads in your city, and give a better response next time … instead of an apology.

“Hurdle” number one – We dont have the scenery:

Sure, we don’t have oceans and palm trees. But we do have bustling scenes with different styles of architecture and people. We have thriving small business communities and close friendships – Clintonville, Grandview, Victorian Village and the Short North to name a few. If you don’t have community in Columbus, you’re trying not to. We also have burgeoning art communities like Franklinton. It’s a place that cares about all different sorts of things: family, social justice, art, fashion and design. Attending the Retail Summit, I realized that I am part of a community of retail designers who support each other and share these experiences.

“Hurdle” number two –Theres more diversity in bigger cities.”:

Not true. Columbus is hugely international and full of youth. We have more than 140,000 college students, and according to Bizjournal, 10.7 percent of The Ohio State University’s students are from countries abroad. Right now, everyone is questioning the future of retail, and all eyes should be on the young, especially Gen Z. According to Marcie Merriman from Ernst & Young, in her Retail Summit presentation, “Move over Millennials: How Gen Z is Shaping the Future of Retail,” these young guys are hardworking, experience-seeking, transparent forward-thinkers. They matter, and the pulse of that generation shows up on the streets here … and they’re staying.

“Hurdle” number three –Theres not enough fashion.”:

Columbus is third to New York and LA in employing fashion designers according to EMSI, a labor market research company. Limited Brands and many other fashion “houses” reside here, so this is not too surprising. The great thing about fashion in midsized cities is that you can see how middle America (its main consumers) spins it and makes it their own.

“Hurdle" number four – “I need more opportunities.”:

Take your pick: Chute Gerdeman, WD Partners, Big Red Rooster, Fitch, Design Collective, Gensler, NBBJ, Abercrombie, L Brands, Hollister, DSW, Big Lots, Wendy’s, Piada, Bob Evans, and many more, are headquartered in Columbus. (I think everyone wanted to work for DSW after hearing CEO Roger Rawlins in his riveting presentation, “What’s Next in Retail,” at the Retail Summit!)

I could move with my whole family to a new place, a place where people have told me I have to be in order to have the fullest level of opportunity. But after living in six cities in nine years, I feel confident in saying that I love Columbus and have never felt lacking in possibilities. I hope that if you are in one of the other 48 states (besides California or New York), you can feel motivated to invest in your city. Let’s stop apologizing and start designing!

Faith Bartrug of FBD Studios (Columbus, Ohio) has more than a decade of experience in transforming national brands. Her background includes brand strategy, environmental design and visual merchandising, and she has been able to practice what she preaches with leading design firms and clients such as Starwood Retail Partners, Neiman Marcus, and JCPenney.