Last August, to mark its first year in downtown Detroit, Quicken Loans took to the streets to ask local business owners and downtown Detroit leaders why the Motor City is a great place to live and work, even if it's still struggling (which it is) to rebound to what it once was.
Now one of downtown Detroit's biggest business boosters is proving there's more than one way to bring retailing back to the heart of America's most distressed big city. If you can't fill vacant storefronts with actual retail stores and shoppers on foot, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert figures, why not try a new form called "virtual retailing"?
Gilbert has hugely invested in the heart of Motown with his company's headquarters building, other real estate, and fierce leadership on behalf of reinfusing the Detroit economy with capital and people. It continues to be an uphill slog even though, close-in, there are many economically vital areas of Detroit, such as the Fox Theatre-Comerica Park entertainment district north of the Detroit River on Woodward Avenue.
Among Gilbert's holdings are a couple of storefronts on iconic Woodward that continue to be bereft of street-level merchants. So Gilbert and a local marketing agency, as well as the Fathead wall-art brand that he owns, have come up with a way to monetize the vacant glass: make it a virtual store.
Quicken has covered the exterior windows of the buildings with Fathead-size images of merchandise offered by e-vendors, such as watches from Detroit-based Watchwear.com. "Instead of actual merchandise, virtual retail features product images with a QR (quick response) code that shoppers can scan using their smartphones to either buy the item or obtain additional product information," Quicken said in a statement.
Next, Quicken plans to apply the concept to other participating online brands, such as Expedia.com and Shoebuy.com, and to other nearby buildings.
So while downtown Detroit might remain largely hollowed out bricks-and-mortar retailers such as the long-gone flagship Hudson's Department Store, the Motor City could become a leader in a hybrid retailing experience of the future.