A $10 million wish list?

From today’s letters to the editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise:

This is in reply to the May 22 article titled “$10 million wish list.” As a business owner, here are my thoughts.

We’re going after grant money to revitalize our village and particularly the business district. But has anyone bothered to ask themselves how we got this way in the first place?

Over the years we’ve lost a fair amount of mom-and-pop stores. Anybody know why? Do you suppose the business climate as a whole has changed drastically over the years? And if it has, what can we do about it?

In my industry, Christian bookstores that have been in business for over 30 years are closing. Cedar Springs Christian Bookstore in Knoxville, Tennessee, a bookstore larger than the old Newberry’s store we used to have in town, is now closed. Why? Because of competition from the internet. Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough loyal customers anymore, and competition from the internet was killing them. So these good folks just threw in the towel after more than 30 years.

Christian bookstores everywhere are blaming internet competition for hurting their business. Some are finding their own ways of fighting back, but others are just tired of fighting and they’re closing their doors. It seems that Amazon, eBay and various other websites have found that there’s money to be made in selling Christian product.

Now let’s look at our little village. What have we lost over the last few years? Has anybody bothered to ask why these stores closed? Granted, some of the owners either wanted to retire or do something else. But what about those who faced stiff competition from the internet and elsewhere, and decided they’d had enough?

Let’s take a look at the empty storefronts in town. First, most of them are too small. Many are under 1,000 square feet. How much inventory can you sell in that small a space? Not much. And as a small business owner, you have to pay top wholesale prices to get that inventory. You can’t purchase in large lots to get better prices. So your business ends up with a small selection and at what some folks would consider high prices. And since most people shop by price these days, you’re at a huge disadvantage compared to shopping for those same things online.

Secondly, most of those storefronts need work. Who pays for the needed renovations? Paint, paneling, flooring and whatever else that space needs isn’t cheap. And that’s just the stores’ renovations. You haven’t purchased store shelving, fixtures, displays or inventory! Fixtures and displays aren’t cheap. I have a two-sided lockable jewelry display. That display alone cost $900, and that’s just the display. I also have to pay for shipping to get it here. And remember this is just the display and not the product that goes inside. A four-sided display will run me over $1,000, and that doesn’t include the shipping. So anyone who thinks that they can throw a store together for a few bucks knows nothing of the real costs.

Thirdly, most who want to go into business have no idea how much money it’ll take. It’s been recommended that you have enough money to live off of for one to two years in the bank. Why? Because you won’t be able to write yourself a paycheck for at least that long, if not longer. The money people spend in your store will go for expenses, inventory and advertising. As one business owner said to a customer, “First you pay your rent. Then you pay your utilities. Then you pay your suppliers, and if there’s anything left over, you get it.”

There were other goals in this article like diversity shopping opportunities and providing low-cost retail space to encourage new businesses. But how do we diversify our shopping opportunities when we have small storefronts that cannot hold a lot of product? What kind of variety can a business offer in less than 1,000 square feet? And who provides low-cost retail space to encourage new businesses? Building owners have expenses to pay, too. And how long do those low costs last?

Think business hasn’t changed? When was the last time you went to the Plattsburgh mall? Today’s mall in Plattsburgh is a shell of what it used to be. In the food court we had a Philly steak place, Taco Bell, Subway, a pizza place, a Chinese eatery, a Mediterranean eatery, a chicken place and a Burger King. Today the steak place, Chinese and Mediterranean eatery, pizza place, chicken place and Burger King are gone. You had to look hard to find a place to sit and eat, but not anymore. On a Saturday afternoon the food court is empty. And you can almost drive a car down the main walkway and not hit anyone. It’s sad, but a reminder of how things have changed.

. . . .

Long gone are the days when customers would break your doors down if you just opened your store. If today’s retailers can’t get creative and find ways to bring in customers, they’re dead. When I was growing up, a 10 percent off storewide sale got everyone’s attention. Today 10 percent off gets nobody’s attention. Folks can find all the bargains they want in the comfort of their own home, and many do. I’ve also heard stories of folks who split up when they go shopping, and talk back and forth comparing prices on their phones.

So if we think that by putting in street trees, decorative light poles and sidewalks, we’ll somehow fill our empty storefronts, think again. If we’re not careful, we’ll be grasping at straws in order to fix a problem that we can’t fix. The internet has taken business away from every retailer in town, and if they tell you that’s not true, they’re probably lying.

And if you think that by hopefully getting a $10 million grant, we can fix things, I don’t think we’re being realistic. Perhaps instead of a grant, today’s retailers or would-be retailers need lessons on how to deal with competition, particularly on the internet. That’s more realistic.

Link to the rest at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and thanks to DM for the tip.

14 thoughts on “A $10 million wish list?”

  1. Local places can deliver real life, in person services such as food, laundry facilities, classes (sports, fitness, dance), and souvenirs. Haircuts. Antiques.

    They have a tough time competing on price if they are selling merchandise that isn’t hand made or requires in-person inspection.

    I thought clothing would have to be local because people want to try it on. I was wrong: a liberal return policy makes online shopping competitive in some clothing and shoe markets.

    I wish we’d had them when I was growing up. My shoe needs as a young woman in Mexico could not be met locally, so I wore whatever someone in the States brought me when they came to visit. An awful lot of ugly shoes. And I was tall, and couldn’t find a thing to fit me in local clothing stores. Custom-made clothes are not what a teen girl wants to have available – you don’t really see something until it’s finished, and then you have to wear it anyway. And get very little selection.

  2. He sounds like he thinks everything would get better if he could just make that darn internet thingy go away …

    And hint, if the mall stores aren’t pulling in a crowd then there’s no money in running a food court …

    Adapt or die.

  3. His comment on the square footage is one most of the city rebuilders forget about. How can they compete in 1000 or 2000 square feet. Look at Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, etc. They are 60,000 square feet plus. Another thing is the property tax on that square footage. Here locally, one store paid about 2.50 per foot out of the downtown compared to 7.50. That’s a lot of expense before you see any profit.

  4. I really feel for businesses affected by the internet, but here’s the thing. For me to go somewhere local or the next town over to buy something that a shop probably doesn’t have anyway, I need to drive my car, burn gas, sit in traffic, deal with parking, crowds, people who don’t know where they’re going and block walkways while they figure it out, screaming babies, shop workers who don’t answer questions or can’t be found, etc., etc., and it’s simply easier to sit on my couch, saving gas and aggravation, while I click Amazon or wherever and get what I need that way. I do my grocery shopping late when there’s nobody around and traffic is light. I’m done in 20 minutes. During the day it takes 20 minutes just to get to the store.

    It’s not that nobody wants to go to a local business, it’s that nobody wants to deal with the human refuse one must navigate to get to the local business.

  5. The example he gives of Christian bookstores might not be the best one to make his point. I’ve heard numerous complaints that Christian bookstores (often chains) have been curating their stock to fit a certain moral/political slice of the world. Essentially telling customers what type of books they should be buying. “You can have *this* kind of book,” ala Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Whereas online people can find whatever type of Christian themed story they want.

    • Accurate Chong Go

      And it has been ongoing for decades in ma/pa religious supply stores, and chains like mardel. Their business; they get to choose inventory just like all others. And you are right, internet allows broad and deep choices. No contest.

    • Also, if they refuse to serve customers who want something other than “Christian books” and they are the only bookstore around for 30 miles – they are hurting themselves by training everyone else to shop online, rather than being more flexible in inventory. Maybe such a narrow niche is no longer viable.

      Just thinking… they could also be more flexible in serving customers. If someone could call in a book order (or – imagine that! – order through their website) and pick it up the next time they come to town, both might profit. Not sure if that ever happens.

      • Hannah, your ideas are good ones. I wish they’d listen. Last time I was in a mardel’s and asked to buy a copy of bible translation called the message, the old diminutive ice-boxed shaped man with smudged eyeglasses scoled me about it not being ‘proper’ and etc. I left, no sale. Thinking they’d hired Smeagle without realizing it. Nope, bookstore and scolding customers does not seem to go together lol

  6. Reading this article reminds me of my town. The downtown core has been a shadow of it’s former self for decades. I have heard the Downtown Business association blame from time to time shopping malls, Walmart, and now the internet. Yet, none of those things can really be the blame for decades of high taxes, stringent regulations, and attempts to cater to tourists over residents.
    Blaming the internet these days, and places like Amazon or Ebay, seems to be the excuse. I think some of these towns should start looking closer to home for why businesses shutter their doors and why some malls are losing businesses as well.

  7. > Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough loyal customers anymore, and competition from the internet was killing them.

    What has happened here is that… their loyal customers are now someone else’s loyal customers.

    We heard the same laments when the department stores moved in, and then became chain stores, and then megastores.

      • Uhmm, to a certain extent it is…
        Without consumer loyalty both Apple and Sony would’ve folded during their dark days.
        For decades entire families bought only Fords, or Chevys, or (more recently) Hondas.

        PRIME is to a large extent a (vedy successful) loyalty program that offers a wide range of perks to keep shoppers happy and loyal so Amazon gets first crack at tbeir ownline spending.

        And, more relevant to Indie author/publishers, it is why the concept of the Thousand True Fans is so useful.

        http://kk.org/thetechnium/1000-true-fans/

        Consumer loyalty is real, albeit hard to earn and easy to lose. Consumers will bend over backwards a bit to support a retailer they have a comfortable relationship with…up to a point. Beyond that point self-interest takes over.

        Once the consumer’s interests diverge enough from the store few if any appeals will bring them back. And the same psychology applies to most transactional relationships.

        Focus is key.

  8. Hannah, your ideas are good ones. I wish they’d listen. Last time I was in a mardel’s and asked to buy a copy of bible translation called the message, the old diminutive ice-boxed shaped man with smudged eyeglasses scoled me about it not being ‘proper’ and etc. I left, no sale. Thinking they’d hired Smeagle without realizing it. Nope, bookstore and scolding customers does not seem to go together lol

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