The Market Demand Study Committee has been hard at work all summer developing its investigation into the business scene in downtown New Canaan. The study was a recommendation that came out of the 2007 Downtown New Canaan Strategic Plan. The town received a $75,000 Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant in 2009 to cover the costs of the initiative.

The committee held a public hearing along with BFJ Planning, the hired consultants, June 7, where several residents voiced their concerns and suggestions regarding the vitality of New Canaan's market.

In an interview with the New Canaan News this week, John Goodwin, chairman of the MDS Committee, discussed some preliminary findings from results of four focus groups held with consumers and merchants in town earlier this summer. Both the consumer and merchant focus groups had subsets -- one with only men and one with only women. Goodwin was able to draw some very preliminary conclusions from the focus groups.

"Town consumers, by and large, seem to like the town the way it is right now. Whether it is the ambience or the beauty, there is an affinity with that aspect," Goodwin said. "We initially found that New Canaanites are looking for improvement as opposed to dramatic change. So they also like the fact that it is a very walkable town. The merchants share that affinity."

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One objective of the focus group was to get an idea for a specific line of questioning for direct level interviews with the merchants in town, some of which have already begun.

"We had this list of the so-called big questions," Goodwin said. "The focus groups have told us we seem to be on the right track in terms of asking the right questions to come up with clear recommendations at the end of this study."

The major issue that store owners brought up was rent, Goodwin said. "I think there are a significant amount of merchants who think rent is indeed too high," Goodwin said.

"For merchants of local stores, as opposed to chain stores, it becomes a key competitive disadvantage in town."

The notion of chain stores was another point consumers also reacted to.

"We can also say that it seems as if consumers like having some specific high-end chains in town but they don't want them to be dominant," Goodwin said. "Consumers feel as if too many chains would negatively affect the character of New Canaan."

As has always been the case in New Canaan, parking was another key issue out of the focus groups for both merchants and consumers.

"Resident input indicated that there are minor issues of having fairly adjacent parking to all the main stores downtown," Goodwin said. "The merchants feel as if parking can be reworked to better facilitate traffic into their stores."

Goodwin said ideas were brought up regarding more signage for easier parking schemes as a remedy for the issue.

Consumers and merchants also sounded off on the role of restaurants in town. Goodwin said many consumers saw it as a positive and identified New Canaan as a culinary destination.

"Merchants are more split on the issue," Goodwin said. "Some of them feel as if it is good for bringing people into town, while others feel that too much retail space could get soaked up restaurants."

Consumers also brought up the notion of having some stores open late in some configuration. Goodwin said merchants were not as enthusiastic about the idea considering their past experiences.

"Many of merchants felt like that was good in theory but felt that they don't always get traffic in those instances."

As far as certain services go, Goodwin said the most leakage into other towns was grocery stores.

"In New Canaan, groceries are pretty specific to Walter Stewarts and Food Emporium," Goodwin said. "Many consumers brought up the idea of a green grocery shop like Whole Foods or something like that."

Internet shopping was another subject of discussion for the focus groups.

"Preliminary indications are that residents are generally not using the internet to shop as much as you might think, with the big exception to that being books," Goodwin said.

"Consumers seems to be using the internet more as tool for research and deals. There could still be a great opportunity there for merchants obviously. We are asking if there is a way that local merchants could be proactively marketing themselves. On the whole, merchants do see the internet as a competitive threat but it is not seen as being too destructive."

Specific demands for services by consumers were varied with one big exception.

`Everyone seems to want a shoe store," Goodwin said. "We also got feedback about more apparel for teens, a gourmet food and cheese shop and the green grocery store concept."

Goodwin also addressed looking at other towns and local governments who have helped their downtown.

"There are other towns that appear to be doing somewhat more on the margin to help their business districts," Goodwin said. "We will come up with some ideas and present the pros and cons."

In the meantime, the committee and BFJ Planning are developing an Internet survey for residents and even out-of-town consumers. The survey is expected to be up late August into September. Goodwin said reaching out of town residents will be key in figuring out what brings those consumers to New Canaan so that they can capitalize on it.

The MDS Committee will hold its next meeting at Town Hall Sept. 20 at 4:30 p.m.