The “for lease” sign finally came down on a vacant storefront on our shopping street last week, and according to the new sign we are now going to have a boxing studio as a neighbor.  At the same time it was announced that another vacancy is being filled by a holistic vet clinic.

Don’t get me wrong — I have nothing against either boxing or boxers.  But this is a trend I’m seeing played out across the country.  Fewer independent retail stores, more service businesses and food establishments.  When we opened on Monroe Street over 40 years ago, your dining choices were limited to a bakery, a diner and a couple of bars. We now have over 20 restaurants and coffee shops, many of them in former retail locations.

This move away from locally owned shops is the same one that spelled disaster for so many downtown areas in smaller communities. Shopping on main street gradually offered fewer options as the storefronts were taken up by restaurants, insurance agencies, realtors and other service businesses. The big box store on the outskirts of town became the only practical place to get the goods you needed.

The downside of the trend away from retail shops is that the daytime pedestrian visits to an area dwindle, bringing fewer shoppers for existing stores.  The economic viability of the area is at risk, and safety and community character are also threatened.

Stemming this trend will not be easy, but I take hope from the fact that independent bookstores are making a comeback because of consumer demand. If we want our communities to have a healthy mix of retail, service businesses and dining establishments we need to rally our citizens and our civic leaders. One problem is that it is very difficult today to get funding for a new retail store, which is a greater factor in limiting startups than a lack of eager entrepreneurs.  Cities and towns can offer grants for build-outs limited to retailers, an effort already underway in some communities. Banks can offer easier access to loans for retailers, hopefully backed by programs from the federal, state and local government. Municipalities can offer programs to train and advise retail start-ups, and to help existing retailers compete.  

To take an image from our newest business neighbor, we need to fight back to keep our communities healthy, and to make sure that they offer a mix of businesses that will be viable for years to come.

Happy Retailing,

Carol “Orange” Schroeder 

PS There will not be a Specialty Shop Retailing blog next week because of the gift show at the Las Vegas Market. Come hear me speak on promotions and special events on Monday at 1:30 — I’d love to meet you!

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