BrainTrust Query: Main Street Must Be Interdependent Businesses, Not Independent

Discussion
Jun 10, 2010
Bob Phibbs

Commentary by Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor

Through a special arrangement,
presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail
Doc
blog.

There is a renewed emphasis on downtown Main Streets because they
are what gives their communities character. You don’t get that from a
concrete, tilt-up big-box development out by the interstate.

The National Trust
for Historic Preservation is behind the excellent Main Street program because
America’s foundation for greatness has come from honoring
and preserving the best of the past.

Originally, Main Street had the saloon,
the hotel, the livery, the general store, the church — all of the services
— because they all needed each other. The key to any Main Street program or
Downtown Business Association is to remove the idea of "independent business"
and understand it is a collection of "interdependent" businesses.

That interdependency
is what spelled doom for so many downtowns in the 1970s and 1980s when they
didn’t care what the other guy was doing. Now the best
Main Street businesses understand, "if I close early, I could be hurting
the very neighbors I depend on to make a living."

The worst still close
on Sundays and limit hours to when it is convenient for the owner. I call that
"hobby retailing." That’s not smart
in a hyper-competitive environment for everything from furniture to food, from
plasmas to plants and from coffee to crafts.

Smart retailers will
find they can do with smaller footprints in this economy which perfectly fit
many historic areas. Expect to see more variety and selection as America
rebuilds its core.

With gas costs rising, we’ll see more interest in
the downtowns that were so quickly abandoned for the concrete reality of the
malls. It won’t
happen easily or quickly, but clearly with over a thousand Main Street programs
across the country, it is gaining steam.

Discussion Questions: How important is "interdependency" to
the success of downtown independent retailers? How is this principle best practiced?

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14 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Main Street Must Be Interdependent Businesses, Not Independent"


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Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

In most cases, you can find the same stores everywhere. They are operated by the chains–some regional, some national. While they can be very well operated, it is done by managers and not owners.

Main street is generally different. The people who own, operate. This alone creates some uniqueness. It also means the store hours, etc are set by the person on site and as is pointed out in the article, mean they can open and close based on their owner’s preference. They can decide what goes on sale when, etc.

I agree with article that the results the stores on Main Street achieve rests to some extent on the cooperation of the other retailers. By having similar hours, people feel comfortable that when they go there the shops will be open. Something that is important even if they don’t intend to go into them all. By joining forces that can promote downtown days and other events to drive foot traffic and hopefully, sales.

Roger Saunders
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

Sounds idyllic…however, the demographics, consumer lifestyle, needs of developers, and political leadership challenges make the “Thornton Wilder–“Our Town” make this problematic. Main Street needs merchants that come together to rally their cause, and hold a common focus on the consumer.

We’ll see wonderful examples in a number of communities of the ‘New Urban Village’, but this isn’t a model that will generate a great deal of investment cash.

Ian Percy
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

In physics it’s called Bell’s Theorem. Basically that every particle in the Universe is able to communicate with every other particle regardless of time and space. In Main Street language Phibbs is brilliantly right; all retail is interconnected to all retail. There is no choice. That’s the way the energy of the universe works.

The interdependency notion needs to be taken much further, however, which I’m now trying to do in a few small cities. Schools, restaurants, places of worship, all employers, local government, city services and all kinds of retail need to not only recognize their interdependency–but ACT on it. We are struggling economically and culturally because we have not done so. The question needs to be “How do we make our entire city or town an amazing experience whether people are going to church, are at work, going to the park, paying their taxes, or buying shoes?” Think like that and the possibilities are infinite.

Sandy Miller
Guest
Sandy Miller
10 years 10 months ago

This is an excellent concept. But the devil will be in the execution. Main Street must provide the broad and competitively priced merchandise selection and emphasize products and lines not carried by Walmart.

Mark Burr
Guest
10 years 10 months ago
A recent drive through the very small town of Marshall, Michigan proved the concept discussed here in a spectacular way. A small caveat; the recent opening of a large casino within miles may have helped the town even further, but I would suggest it was well on its way far prior to that. This was a town that was nearly dead a couple of decades ago. Today, it is a town I would crave to be a part of from its entire experience. The ‘Main Street’ is lined with a well diverse grouping of business and surrounded in its outer edges by complimentary businesses off and outside of the “Main Steet” drag. They are all necessary to complete the entire concept. Storefronts were attractive of both newer up to date experiences, as well as, the old hardware store at the center. A round about with a spectacular old fountain captured the imagination of a time that once was and is again. It was mid week and the town was a bustle of activity. This is… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

We are seeing different versions and concepts of the “Main Street” concept across the country. Particularly in South Florida we have several condensed blocks of “Main Street” retail businesses cropping up. Most of them have the same retailers with different retailers making up the balance. All have the ladies shops, restaurants, and specialty shops. Some even have sporting goods specialties like a Golfsmith.

These are differing versions of “Main Street”; but still have that focus as the principle driver. The combination of stores brings customers who then become walkers and traffic for the others.

The next step is to have them understand the importance of interdependence and working together to make each successful. This will/can happen if the right mix of local management is involved. Someone has to have the vision and foresight to understand that interdependence makes each stronger.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 10 months ago

To grossly simplify, the national chains are able to provide lower prices to the consumer through scale and cost leverage. The Main Street merchant lacks this leverage, but has the advantage of understanding (and potentially providing) exactly what their local customer wants. The real question is whether consumers will move away from homogeneous assortments on price promotion towards slightly higher-priced merchandise that is tailored to their specific preferences and location.

As discussed earlier this week, the nationals are moving towards localization. Main Street is already local. My sense is that there have been fewer more opportunistic times than now for the Main Street retailer.

Jeff Hall
Guest
10 years 10 months ago
A convergence of forces, including more individuals working from home and a growing movement to “buy local” are placing a positive focus on Main Street retail. I live in the quaint village of Chelsea, Michigan (just outside of Ann Arbor), and the merchants here, through cooperation, creative planning and the forethought of community leaders, are a great example of understanding the power of interdependency. One illustration of leveraging interdependency is the conscious manner in which the local Chamber seeks out and encourages the opening of businesses which will complement the existing mix. In just a three block span (yes, this is a small village), our residents have access to a specialty foods market, weekend farmer’s market, coffee house, flower shop, bookstore, hardware store, community theater, gardening store, arts center, barbershop, a handful of specialty retail gift/home furnishings stores, galleries and destination restaurants. A weekly “sights & sounds” festival throughout the summer draws hundreds of out-of-town visitors to live outdoor music and artist performances, keeping our downtown vibrant. What makes it all work is having the… Read more »
James Tenser
Guest
10 years 10 months ago

The interdependency of merchants in the town center is a fine concept with more than a kernel of truth. The pragmatist in me wonders, however, where should the stimulus for collaboration originate?

The chamber of commerce seems like a good candidate, since many merchants are likely to be members. Perhaps town government could step up, if the leaders possess vision. A local banker might see sponsoring an “Up With Downtown” movement as a way to stimulate visitor traffic and boost lending activity.

Leadership is the magic ingredient in this kind of community movement. Someone must articulate the potential, the goals, the benefits and the path to reaching them. This is not an entirely natural process, and absent a firm hand, the road to a vibrant main street may be paved with good intentions.

Mark Johnston
Guest
Mark Johnston
10 years 10 months ago

Main Street must still give the consumer what they want. All too often Main Street stores are boutique specialty stores that cater to a small segment. Many of the regular everyday items people need (affordable blue jeans, laundry soap, or a can of soup) cannot be found on Main Street. This forces people to the malls and power centres. Once they start shopping there, it is a hard habit to break.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
10 years 10 months ago
Totally agree that interdependency is important to success. Whether it’s mom-and-pops downtown or chains at the mall, retailers rely greatly on the foot traffic generated by nearby merchants. That said, programs designed to reignite faltering or failed Main Streets sometimes strike me as a mistaken longing for a bygone era when life was less complicated and Main Street was a key shopping destination. Same thing could be said of the grand department stores of yore. Time moves forward, and cultural and demographic changes sweep across the consumer landscape creating new lifestyles, new lifestyle needs and new shopping destinations and behaviors. In short, I’m not opposed to efforts to bring businesses and consumers back to Main Street, but a heavy dose of reality is needed, i.e., the plan needs to be the creation of a modern Main Street that suits the lifestyles of today’s consumers. For instance, trying to rely solely (or greatly) on indie merchants probably won’t work, i.e., Main Streets need to consider the real draw created by chains. The associations behind these efforts… Read more »
Michael Baker
Guest
Michael Baker
10 years 10 months ago

Here in Australia there are a large number of very functional and vibrant Main Streets (we call them “strips”) in every major metro area. People like them because they offer a localised, personalised alternative to the retail chains that have mostly gone to the shopping centres. As a consultant I have worked with a number of retailers and local marketing entities (you really need a unified marketing entity that represents all the merchants) on these strips.

One of the key things, and this is really banal, but true, about successful strips or “Main Streets” is that people can easily park there. Many strips fail and donate all their potential customers to shopping centres simply because they don’t offer people an easy way to arrive there and stay there!

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
10 years 10 months ago

I think it’s too easy to extend the idea of interdependency too far. Can independent Main Street retailers benefit from a cohesive, appealing destination environment that draws customers. Absolutely.

The make-or-break for these retailers, however, remains in their own unique, compelling offering. As stated above, these retailers can’t compete on the basis of price, so their offering has to be built around passionate, engaging and knowledgeable salespeople, unique product offerings and a carefully constructed customer experience. And they have to be clever marketers and hard-headed business people, on top of everything else.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
10 years 10 months ago

This is also the key to malls making a comeback. Malls, over time, lost their souls and became disconnected to the community around them. For malls and main street, they must work with the communities around them and the businesses that make them up. This difficult to do but it will separate the winners and losers.

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