For a variety of historical, geographic, and cultural reasons, Columbus, Ohio, is widely known as the best test market for new retail concepts. Scores of brands and retailers literally set up shops in the Midwestern town, trying out novel store designs, new product flavors, and alternative service options. The appeal of Columbus rests on several factors. First, its population closely resembles the demographics of the nation as a whole. Thus, if something sells well to folks in Columbus, their counterparts throughout the country are likely to appreciate it as well. Second, it is home to the Ohio State University, offering a vast population of college students, who constitute the primary target market for many of the retailers that set up operations in the town. Third, the cost of living is relatively low in Columbus, such that retailers can afford to experiment with various locations and try out new ideas, while still paying reasonable rents. They also enjoy more affordable advertising and marketing rates, so they can spread their test messages to local shoppers more effectively. Fourth, because it is less prominent than major cities like New York, a failed experiment in Columbus is less likely to make the national or international news. Accordingly, not only do many retailers visit the city to test their new concepts, but it also has been the source of a disproportionate number of novel retailing concepts. For example, L Brands (Limited, Victoria’s Secret, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch) grew out of the mind of a local Ohio State University graduate, Les Wexler. Such innovation is increasingly necessary in the competitive retail landscape, and Columbus welcomes retailers that want to experiment in its midst. But as these retailers struggle to remain profitable, it also is confronting some related challenges; as some retailers leave the market, the vacancy rates for Columbus retail locations keep creeping up. For a town that depends on ensuring a healthy retail industry, innovations in the sector represent both necessities and deep concerns.

Source: David Gelles, The New York Times, October 14, 2017