Cities, Towns and Villages Are Innovating to Adapt to the Changing Retail Landscape

May 2, 2023 - (5 min read)

New report from National League of Cities details trends in retail and offers recommendations for local leaders to support their communities in light of recent changes.

Washington, D.C. – The National League of Cities today released The Future of Cities: Adapting to Changes in the Retail Landscape, a report that analyzes the post-pandemic retail economy in cities, towns and villages nationwide. The report found that changes in central business districts have been profound, due in part to the rates of in-office work in certain geographies, and that recoveries have been uneven.

“The difference in the ways that cities have recovered from the pandemic is striking and has local leaders rethinking the best ways they can support continued growth in their communities,” said NLC CEO and Executive Director Clarence Anthony. “As we see shifts in retail trends with e-commerce, hybrid work and downtown recovery play out, NLC is working hand-in-hand with local leaders to share best practices and implement strategies that promote stability and growth.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought many unprecedented shocks that changed the retail landscape. Many businesses were forced to close their doors, consumer behavior suddenly shifted toward e-commerce, and municipalities adapted their permitting and zoning to allow businesses to operate in new mediums. However, cities have demonstrated their resilience and efforts to rebuild, namely through a surge in entrepreneurship and new business applications. As many people were left jobless by the pandemic, they migrated toward a technology-driven retail environment with a low barrier to entry. This new report by NLC details these changes, including:

  1. Local leaders have a critical role to play in promoting growth, equity, and resilience for their retail communities through investments in programming, resources, public space, training and other types of support.
  2. Different cities face different paths forward for downtown recovery, with older, denser downtowns within larger metro areas recovering more slowly.
  3. Many retailers are encouraging a “phygital” approach – blending physical and e-commerce shopping experiences, including shopping in-store, purchasing online and/or pick up or return in store.
  4. The growth in the retail market has not been equitably distributed between subsectors, and growth is slower in BIPOC and low-income communities.
  5. The rates of in-office work are the highest they’ve been since the start of the pandemic. While these rates are still below pre-pandemic levels, many downtown areas will benefit from workers spending their time and money at nearby storefronts.

Several communities have embraced new initiatives and approaches – standing out as leaders, in terms of innovative approaches to retail recovery and rethinking public space. In this new report, NLC showcases success stories in Norwalk, CT; North Las Vegas, NV; Boynton Beach, FL; Memphis, TN; West Hollywood, CA; Chicago, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; and Tacoma, WA, and provides six key recommendations for local leaders to help bolster their local retail economies:

  • Neighborhood-based organizations will be essential partners for cities to support small businesses. Relationships with hyper-local organizations like downtown associations and chambers of commerce are essential for consensus-building and to reach BIPOC-owned businesses and businesses in underserved areas.
  • Due to inflation and uncertainty, retailers will act with caution. While inflation has not yet had a high-level negative impact across the retail sector as a whole, subsectors have felt the changes and impact. In response, some larger retailers have already indicated caution in hiring in anticipation for upcoming economic changes.
  • In-person and digital commerce will continue to blend. Cities, towns and villages need to provide digital support to local businesses to help them adapt to this new reality, and adapt to prepare their workforces for high-demand occupations to ensure that retail remains an industry with strong employment opportunities.
  • Economic development will center around improving the quality of life. As local businesses have become an essential gathering place for communities, economic development initiatives will increasingly be designed to encourage well balanced, livable neighborhoods.
  • Local leaders serve a critical role in providing support for local retail business. Local leaders can serve as convenors between retail business and local colleges, postsecondary institutions and community-based organization to meet local retail workforce needs and support the re-skilling of workers.
  • Cities, towns and villages need to focus on the long-term needs of small businesses beyond the pandemic. As small business grants phase out in favor of loans and other traditional capital, local governments might consider revolving loan funds or low-interest credit building loans.

“This report is one of the first holistic, deliberate reviews of what comes next for the retail sector nationwide and how communities are preparing for a future retail economy,” said Lena Geraghty, Director of Sustainability and Innovation at NLC. “With local officials pulled in multiple directions addressing new resiliency challenges, this research provides actionable recommendations and clear guidance on ways cities, towns and villages can support their communities and retail ecosystems through recovery.”

Click here to read the full Future of Cities: Adapting to Changes in the Retail Landscape report, which is part of NLC’s Future of Cities Initiative. For more information on NLC and its Future of Cities Initiative, visit


The National League of Cities (NLC) is the voice of America’s cities, towns and villages, representing more than 200 million people. NLC works to strengthen local leadership, influence federal policy and drive innovative solutions. Stay connected with NLC on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn and Instagram.