Report shows Lawrence lost retail stores at a greater than average rate during the last decade

photo by: Shawn Valverde/Special to the Journal-World

Downtown Lawrence, looking north, is pictured in this aerial photo from September 2023.

In the world of retailing, there are basically two types these days: traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and online retailers. (I sometimes believe in a hybrid, meaning I throw a brick through my computer screen while on Amazon.)

You don’t have to be either Jeff Bezos or Sam Walton to ascertain which way the trend is moving in America. The number of traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores is falling as more shopping migrates to online sites.

That trend has been evident for quite awhile, but I recently received a new report that provides details about brick-and-mortar retail losses for basically every metro area in the country. It shows that over the last 10 years Lawrence has lost more traditional retail stores than the national average. Kansas, as a whole, has lost more than its fair share too.

From 2011 to 2021, Lawrence saw an 18.5% decline in its per capita number of retail stores, according to a new study from the online finance site UpgradedPoints. The national average during the time period was a 12.6% decline, the report determined by using county-level business data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lawrence’s decline was the second largest of any metro area in the state. Fellow college community Manhattan had the largest decline in the state. Here’s a look at the per capita decline, which simply is a measurement of how many retail stores a metro area has per 1,000 residents. The data is for various Kansas metro areas.

• Manhattan: down 23.3%, 2.7 retail stores per 1,000 people.

• Lawrence: down 18.5%, 2.7 retail stores per 1,000 people.

• Topeka: down 15.7%, 2.8 retail stores per 1,000 people.

• Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri): down 14.5%; 2.5 retail stores per 1,000 people.

• Wichita: down 13.6%; 2.8 retail stores per 1,000 people.

The study focused on retail rates per capita. I understand why it did. That’s an attempt to provide meaningful comparisons between large retail communities, like Kansas City, and smaller retail markets, like Lawrence. The downside, though, is you are measuring population growth and decline as much as you are measuring the growth or decline of retail stores. More specifically, you are measuring which towns had retail store numbers that most closely tracked their population trends.

By that metric, you could argue Manhattan and Lawrence’s retail markets are doing the worst of any Kansas metros in keeping up with population. There are probably better ways to measure that, but it is an interesting statistic nonetheless.

The report, however, also provides raw data about the number of retail stores a metro had in 2011 versus how many it had in 2021. Those numbers are a little more straightforward, and Lawrence fares a little better. Here’s a look:

• Manhattan: down 16.7% or 73 stores from 2011; 364 stores remained in 2021.

• Topeka: down 15.4% or 120 stores from 2011; 659 stores remained in 2021.

• Lawrence: down 12.1% or 44 stores from 2011; 320 stores remained in 2021.

• Wichita: down 9.6% or 189 stores from 2011; 1,774 stores remained in 2021.

• Kansas City: down 6.6% or 391 stores from 2011; 5,513 stores remained in 2021.

A couple of numbers stand out to me. First, Lawrence lost stores at about twice the rate of its neighbor Kansas City. Both communities have been growing communities over the last decade — unlike Topeka to the west — but their retail scenes have responded rather differently. Of course, a big difference is that Kansas City is much more of a destination retail community than Lawrence. There have been some efforts over the past decade to increase Lawrence’s draw as a destination retailer, but they largely haven’t won necessary City Hall approvals or haven’t otherwise panned out. Denials of a couple of large shopping center proposals for the intersection of the South Lawrence Trafficway and Iowa Street are examples of the denials. Vacant retail lots near Rock Chalk Park and also surrounding the Menards store on 31st Street are examples of the latter.

The second thing that stood out to me is that Lawrence has the fewest stores of any metro area in the state. That might surprise some, given that we generally think of Manhattan as being a smaller city. But, the Manhattan metro area also includes Junction City and is about 10% larger in population than the Lawrence metro area. If you know that, the numbers make more sense. Nonetheless, the numbers are a good reminder that Lawrence is a small metro area. With a 2022 population of 119,000, it is one of the smaller metro areas in the country. It ranks 331 out 387 metro areas.

The report also looked at the numbers for each state. Those numbers were fairly clear cut: Whether you measure per capita or just the raw numbers, Kansas had the largest percentage decline in retail stores of any of its neighbors. Here’s a look at the raw numbers:

• Kansas: down 12.7% or 1,282 stores; 8,793 stores remained in 2021.

• Missouri: down 10.6% or 2,167 stores; 18,271 stores remained in 2021.

• Nebraska: down 8.3% or 572 stores; 6,326 stores remained in 2021.

• Colorado: down 3.0% or 512 stores; 16,521 stores remained in 2021.

• Oklahoma: up 1.0% or an increase of 123 stores; 12,508 stores remained in 2021.

A couple of things stood out from those numbers. First, Missouri has almost 10,000 more stores than Kansas. (Granted, three-quarters of them are fireworks retailers on I-70.) Clearly Missouri has a much larger population than Kansas, but the number was still striking. I also found it interesting that Missouri has about 2,000 more stores than Colorado.

Colorado was the second item that stood out to me. Despite its reputation for being a magnet for young residents, it saw its brick-and-mortar stores decline only by 3%. That’s not what I expected. Why has this burgeoning high-tech state been relatively successful at keeping its brick-and-mortar retailers during the internet age? I don’t know.

Maybe they googled the benefits of shopping local.


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