Some of CT’s popular downtown areas are experiencing an ongoing retail boom

When downtown retailers open their doors on Connecticut’s Black Friday, there’s a tiny subset of “shoppers” who find little choice — store owners or expansion-oriented chains looking to open in the most desirable downtown areas, where there are far fewer storefronts are available today.

Commercial real estate websites LoopNet and list about 600 retail and restaurant properties across the state of Connecticut that have vacancies, including some with multiple suites available, roughly doubling the number of actual storefronts. Nationwide, the National Retail Federation counted almost 44,000 retail stores in the last report.

But if you look at the data, opportunities for new stores and restaurants are few and far between in many of downtown Connecticut’s retail districts. And few retailers are letting their leases expire in the run-up to the holidays, and many are setting up longer runs downtown when shoppers kick in this year, as many analysts expect, despite higher prices that could hurt actual spending.

In shopping mecca Greenwich, only one space on Greenwich Avenue has come up since Labor Day, LoopNet has tracked. At the other end of the state, in the village of Mystic, there are no vacancies listed in the tourist town hiking area. And along other roads like Westport, Kent and West Hartford, the retail districts are at near capacity.

“There’s a resurgence of experiential retail downtown – these are areas where the larger retailers have barriers to entry due to zoning and other issues,” said Sean Cahill, managing director of real estate agent Avison Young’s Norwalk office. “You’re seeing more restaurants, you’re seeing more health and wellness, salon services — and also certain boutiques, but not mall tenants.”

As elsewhere, the crisis is particularly evident in Darien, where the initial phase of the massive redevelopment of downtown Corbin District is vertical and Darien Commons across from Metro-North’s Noroton Heights station is nearing completion. Along the half-mile stretch of Post Road from the Darien Sport Shop to Starbucks and on the side streets, almost every street-level storefront is occupied on Black Friday eve.

In downtown Westport on Main Street, only one in 15 stores is vacant. And Greenwich Avenue has high occupancy rates, although some prominent storefronts are available at bargain prices, including “The Castle” at the top of Greenwich Avenue, where Duxiana had a bedding store; and the former United Bank branch at the end of the avenue, where the landlord charges $100 per square foot.

In western Connecticut in particular, but also in many locations across the state, cities and towns experienced a booming real estate market during the COVID-19 pandemic, attracting many newcomers from New York and elsewhere. Combine that with last year’s shipping delays and some retailers starting to tighten return policies on shipments, and Amazon-era stores are getting a second wind from local shoppers eager to explore both familiar and new stores .

The question is whether it’s sustainable — and whether landlords will start raising rents to start chains, or whether prospective store owners will think twice about expanding in Connecticut cities, especially downtown ones where limited parking is keeping some shoppers busy can be off-putting during the busiest stretches.

Retail brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield reported that the vacancy rate in US malls fell to 5.9 percent in the third quarter, the lowest in more than 15 years.

“Tenants are finding it difficult to meet their new store opening goals and have been aggressively seeking opportunities,” said Conor Flynn, CEO of Kimco Realty, which operates under more than 500 retail centers in Branford, Farmington, Hamden, Newtown, North Haven and Wilton owns nationally. “Due to the depth and breadth of retailer demand and the lack of supply, this could be the best leasing environment we’ve seen in many ways.”

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