Not all retailers are keen on tossing together a flashy press release to announce a store’s arrival. Many prefer to fly under the radar due to a variety of reasons – from ongoing lease negotiations to competitive concerns.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a dead end for reporters. Although all the information might not be out in the open yet, there are some unique avenues that can help journalists identify mystery retailers.
In an article I wrote late last year, “Walmart buzz grows around mystery grocer opening at Boulder’s Diagonal Plaza,” items such as paints, shelving and renderings of a cart corral were significant clues that Walmart – which had tried and failed many times to enter a Boulder market that was not receptive to the retailer’s presence — was behind a mystery grocery store under development.
Walmart’s potential arrival had significant impact on the city’s sales tax base and competitive landscape. It also raised concerns from citizens and municipal leaders, who claimed the retailer was trying to sneak into Boulder.
Below are some tips and hints that could be applicable in efforts to track down an unknown new business and to overcome obstacles that may land in your path:
Start at the store itself. Pay attention to any ongoing activity, types of materials being used in construction and any signs or posting that may lend some clues. Chat up a worker or a neighboring business owner.
Track down the property owner. This information can be accessed via the county’s assessor’s office. If the owner of the building is an LLC, that information can be plugged into respective secretary of state business search portals.
The secretary of state’s search actually came quite in handy for me on a previous article that Trader Joe’s planned to open its first store in Colorado.
Query your city’s licensing office. This helps confirm if certain companies have filed for applications for sales tax, business or liquor licenses.
Search the state regulatory listings. In Colorado, each pharmacist and pharmacy operation had to be registered separately.
Contact the city’s planning and development office. If activity is ongoing, then a building permit most likely was filed. Seek out planning and development documents for the respective property.
These documents typically have some identifying information about the tenant or the planned use. In the case of mystery grocery in Boulder’s Diagonal Plaza, these plans were absent of the retailer’s name.
The building permits and related documents could have a wealth of information even if it’s not the most obvious.
Make note of details that could be significant. Be careful to transcribe specific details exactly as they were worded in the plans. For the article on Walmart, these details included a store number, listing of the departments, the number of checkouts and a general feel for the layout. The mystery grocer’s fixture plan contained vast amounts of “wall mounted wire shelving 18×48 inches” and departments had items such as a check writing desk, RedBox, Rug Doctor and a Money Center Express.
If a paint scheme is listed, write down several of the paints, including those with unique names.
The Diagonal Plaza tenant’s documents did have a store number of “#3096,” which gave me the indication that it was part of a larger chain.
Something to keep in mind: You should have little problem in viewing electronic or hard copies of these planning documents. If you run against issues from the city and officials are denying your requests, ask them to provide the regulatory statute or code that they claim would prohibit this viewing. File an open records request or consult with your publication’s legal team.
The internet can be your friend. In the wire shelving example, I started out with a simple search of “18×48” and then expanded it to include “ ‘wall mounted wire shelving’ ‘18×48’ ” and then searched the names of various retailers.
I used the same process for the paints and store number.
Try to leave no stone unturned. After not receiving responses from the property owner and Walmart, I contacted other grocers to inquire whether they planned to open a store at Diagonal Plaza. The majority of them did not lay claim to the store.
Don’t let context slip away. Secondary sources such as a city finance official or a retail analyst can provide perspective on the effects of a retailer’s arrival and also provide some clues to further identify a mystery tenant.
Search the company’s “careers” page to see if hiring is taking place in your city.
Sign up for job notification alerts for specific companies. After we were given a heads up that Walmart had made a job posting on Monster for a Boulder hire, I tracked down additional postings and wrote an article. That same day, Walmart announced it was opening a Neighborhood Market at Diagonal Plaza.
As with any document or internet search, be very cautious about the validity of the information and how you convey that in the article.
We felt that the wide variety of elements I obtained through online and in-person reporting were substantial enough to lay out in an article as several different pieces aligned with Walmart as opposed to other retailers.
Don’t give up. Continue to pursue the story and go through the checks again to see if new documents have been filed or new information is available. (And don’t miss the video below where I walk through the key details that helped me uncover the Walmart story.)