At times, business leaders within this region are asked a simple question by outsiders: What's up with retail and Columbus?

At times, business leaders within this region are asked a simple question by outsiders: What's up with retail and Columbus?

"I'm often asked, 'Why are you in Columbus?'" says Brian Shafley, CEO of Chute Gerdeman, a store design and branding agency with about 70 employees in the Brewery District. "We work globally, but if they are not part of our retail ecosystem here, they don't realize the power of it."

Numerous reasons exist that make this area so ripe for for retail. Many brands not only began here, they moved here from other parts of the country, and Shafley says he tells plenty of clients it's because the Region is the center of excellence for retail.

"It has always been a test market for many brands because it is very representative of the nation as a whole," he says. "It has the same kind of diversity, and it's a small enough market to test things using advertisements and other media."

And logistically speaking, the Columbus Region is in the perfect location to serve the Midwest and East Coast, he says.

"Also, in terms of fashion design, Columbus ranks just behind New York City," Shafley says. "It all brings a critical mass to this area and people come here for retail jobs or to start retail concepts. Then they end up staying because it is a lot more livable than the East Coast."

Denny Gerdeman started the company in 1989 after partnering with Les Wexner to open some of the first Limited Brands stores. Now, Chute Gerdeman gets involved with retailers early on when they are looking for something new, Shafley says.

"We are organically plugged into the retail ecosystem," he says. "We do a lot beyond design, including brand strategy, consumer research and the digital that is on everyone's minds."

As the regional ecosystem ?continues to evolve, Chute Gerdeman employees spend much time brainstorming internally, looking for emerging opportunities. Seeking patterns, trends and associations as they relate to human behavior-Big Data-is one area with major potential, Shafley says.

"We do a lot of experience mapping," he says. "What is new is to use technology to track customers better, looking at their emotional journeys. It is not necessarily about what they think, but about how they respond to their shopping experiences."

For sure, retailers are going to have to adapt to the shopping habits of millennials, who often seek products that are more local, personalized and authentic, Shafley says.

"There will be a rise of smaller, more regional and independent stores, and I think Columbus is a rich environment for that," he says. "We're known as a youthful, forward-thinking smart city that is becoming more widely known as a tech center and lifestyle driven; that all seeps into the retail ecosystem."

That doesn't mean all is perfection. Too many companies "stay in their own lanes, so to speak," he says.

"I wish there was more connectivity with this ecosystem," Shafley says. "A lot of people don't know it exists. You hear about certain companies, but there haven't been too many events or efforts to unify this ecosystem and to get these companies to work together and talk more."

Creating some kind of active nucleus would go a long way to making those connections a reality, and that, in the long run, would benefit all, Shafley says.