Jun 04, 2024 /

Retail’s New Frontier: The Rise of Store Openings in Smaller Cities and Counties


Many have wondered in recent years whether retail is experiencing a slow demise at the hands of online shopping. We took a look at some data to explore this question, and found a few interesting links between consumer trends and population migration. What does this tell us about the types of changes that are underway in retail?

We’re seeing an expansion boom among more affordably priced stores like Burlington and Marshalls, and a trend of new store openings across the board in smaller cities as opposed to major metropolitan areas. It’s clear that location is key: while stores have closed, a closer look speaks to a repositioning of many brand footprints. Let’s drill down into what’s happening and what it all means.

Where Have All the Shoppers Gone?

While the shift to online shopping during the pandemic caused some anxiety in the retail sector, in-person shopping has not only rebounded—it appears to be thriving. Across seven brands studied—Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Marshalls, Kohl’s, and Burlington—there were approximately 380+ store openings from 2020 to the present. The store growth rates appeared to peak in 2022 and were followed up by a leveling-off in 2023. 

The seven brands studied opened approximately 380+ stores since 2020 (data visualization built with Carto).

The question: where, exactly, are shoppers going for these in-person experiences? And what are they looking for? 

The Answers Are In the Data

Consumers want to shop at stores that carry quality, trusted brands while not spending more—or traveling farther—than they have to. As a result, retailers are responding to demand for more budget-conscious shopping options. Burlington opened the most stores out of the seven studied during the 2020-present period, with roughly 281 store openings during that time, followed by Marshalls with about 64.

Next, we can see that store openings have been concentrated in suburban locations as opposed to major cities. The data reveals roughly 330 store openings in smaller cities and suburban areas, compared to about 59 openings in major cities (population above 600,000). With the success of these store openings in suburban locations, we can conclude that consumers want in-person shopping experiences—without breaking the bank—in the places they live. And retailers have been paying attention.

The Brand Follows the Consumer

As they say, the brand follows the consumer, and consumers have been on the move. This trend has informed a broader strategy by retailers to tap into emerging markets with growing consumer bases. While several major cities have seen lower rates of population loss over the past four years, and in some cases have even rebounded slightly since 2020, much of the population growth in the U.S. has been concentrated in lower-density outer suburbs.1

Our data indicated 330 openings in suburban areas and 59 openings in major cities from 2020 to today (data visualization built with Carto)

With more people living (and likely working from home) in areas outside of large metro centers, retailers are seeing a ripe opportunity to open new stores in the places where people now live. While some shoppers may still enjoy visiting a flagship store in a major city where they can have a unique experience, they also value time and convenience, a need that retailers are responding to with success.

Location Data: The Key to Business Strategy

It’s clear that location data is crucial to driving growth opportunities, cutting out guesswork and giving retailers a competitive edge. With access to accurate, nearly real-time POI location data, retailers can gain insights into customer trends and develop strategies based on that data. With a finger on the pulse of consumer trends, retailers can meet shoppers where they are while staying ahead of the game.

With dataplor, you’ll get the right insights. Learn more about our dynamically updated location intelligence here.

  1. Source: “New census data hints at an urban population revival, assisted by immigration,” by Robert Frey, The Brookings Institution, April 2024 ↩︎