More than $500 million that could be spent locally is "leaking" from downtown Beaufort and the surrounding area every year, according to the preliminary results of a marketing study.
"The raw data is a wake-up call that we are missing some huge opportunities," Mayor Billy Keyserling said.
Main Street Beaufort, USA, is working with Arnett Muldrow and Associates of Greenville on the study.
A final presentation, which will include suggestions to stem the leak and improve the retail economy, is tentatively planned for Sept. 3, Main Street Beaufort executive director LaNelle Fabian said.
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Project manager Tee Coker called his initial presentation Wednesday "a data dump." The data were compiled from responses from almost 900 online surveys, about 5,000 ZIP codes collected in one week by 50 businesses from customers, and dozens of meetings with residents and business owners.
Some of the results came as no surprise, such as concerns about parking and a lack of variety at stores. It also found many residents traveled to Savannah and Bluffton to shop and a desire for a large store, like Target, Trader Joe's or The Fresh Market.
More surprising was that limited store hours are a problem for potential downtown customers. More than half of downtown businesses close by 5 p.m. Only 44 percent are open Sundays.
Coker said that means missed opportunities to attract working people, and tourists who check into hotels between 3 and 6 p.m.
Arnett and Muldrow also looked at how much money residents have to spend. They determined that an estimated $540 million could be spent in the Beaufort area but is not.
"This does not necessarily signal we need new businesses," Coker said. "It may mean that we need to do a better job with what we have."
Changes are needed to draw the larger stores people say they want, Keyserling said. He believes the data support the city's Civic Master Plan, which calls for increasing the number of people living downtown. Those people would, in turn, make Beaufort more attractive to businesses.
"Stores don't come here because people want them here," he said. "Stores come here because the scientific data they use tells them they can be successful."
Key opportunities for downtown include specialty grocery stores, furniture, family clothing, hobby, toy and game stores; beer, wine and liquor stores, and sporting goods related to the water, Coker said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.