Monday, January 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Sweet Shops

In my Sunday paper (yes, I love an actual newspaper on Sunday morning) I saw an article about the Romeo Creamery, an ice cream store that opened a few years ago in a downtown about 30 minutes from mine.  As I read the article, it became clear that it was not a feel-good independent business story, but rather a business owner crying for help because their business was failing.  The ice cream shop opened two years ago and the owner was a former employee at the downtown antique mall.  The long-time ice cream shop in the same location had closed and she wanted to step in to take it over.  The business started off well, but began to decline soon after opening. 

At some point, they had to relocate and were now operating in a smaller space in the core of the downtown district. They pointed to the economy and an uncooperative landlord as the reasons behind their plight.  For the rest of the day, I couldn't get this article out of my head.  Being a professional business rescuer of sorts, of course my first instinct was to figure out what I could do to help them.  Yet, something about this story set my Spidey senses tingling.

So I put on my thinking cap and hit the Internet to do a little research on the business.  What I discovered made the picture much clearer.  As I dug deeper, I found their Facebook page.  The posts told me (and every other visitor) everything I needed to know about the shop.  First, hours are limited (1-6 pm) and sporadic at best.  I know this because that is the comment made most often on their page by their followers that they are often not open when they come to town.  Oh, and as of July, they still didn't have a sign up and were telling customers to "look for the flag". Second, the majority of their posts focus on the other products that they sell - antiques, sugar scrubs, even chain mail jewelry.  I understand that they are looking for ways to draw customers in, but they only that they are doing is confusing their potential customers. I don't claim to be an expert in the ice cream business, and I understand that wintertime in Michigan is not the best time to be selling cold treats, but I see lots of ice cream stores in our area that are busy year-round.

So I thought I would try an apples-to-apples comparison and look at Sweet Island Yogurt, a new business that just opened in my downtown this past year. It's one of those new self-serve yogurt concepts, but independently owned and operated.  I checked their hours - 11 am - 10 pm, every day.  Their posts focus on their customers, products, and special events.  The only thing they added to continue to attract visitors during the colder weather is hot coffee and cocoa.  Simple and straightforward, they have been well-received and are making it happen every day.

So what's the difference?  As downtown managers, we see it every day.  People that go into business with their hearts instead of their heads.  The owners of the Romeo Creamery wanted to give back to their community, but didn't adequately run the numbers and figure out how to market their concept effectively.  Sweet Island Yogurt did their research, wrote a business plan and talked to downtown business owners about the area and our organization before they made the decision to open their business here.  Same product, vastly different results.

Does this remind you of a business in your town?  If so, now might be the time to make a visit to see if you can help them refine and clarify their concept so they have the best shot at success.  It's not good for anyone to see your downtown as a revolving door of businesses.  And if you see a chance to help your businesses , well, that's opportunity I'll take every day of the week!

The Downtown Geek

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Art of Attracting Businesses

The same things happen in every downtown during the first quarter of the year - packing up all the holiday cheer, planning for your next event season and watching some of your businesses close their doors.  In my experience, this is the most "popular" time of year for businesses to make that fateful decision.  In truth, many make that decision the year prior, but go through one last holiday season to either give it one last try or to make as much money as possible before they throw in the towel.  Any business closing is sad, but it also has to be looked at as an opportunity.  Whenever a space becomes available, this is your time to forge a relationship with that property owner (if you don't already have one) and to find a business that fills a gap in your downtown business mix. Even if your occupancy rate is high, you should always be on the look out for new businesses so you can build a strong prospect list.

How Do You Know What Fits?

Take a look around.  As a manager, you should have your finger on the pulse of what your community needs.  Who is your primary customer?  Look for businesses that will give your customers another reason to come downtown.  You always want to be cautious to protect your existing businesses.  The goal should always be to enhance the existing mix.  Be careful of looking for businesses that are "on trend" right now.  As quickly as they are the new hotness, they will be forgotten and out of business.

So Where Do You Find Them?

I'm not a big fan of cold calling.  It's rarely effective, and just plain awkward.  I prefer the personal approach so I like to visit other downtowns and shopping centers. I don't walk around with a stack of brochures, passing them out to any merchant who will take them. I visit businesses, usually ones that I have done research on first.  I walk the floor, assess the merchandise and try to picture how it would go in our downtown.  If I like what I see, I introduce myself to the manager and inquire if they would ever consider opening a second location.  Never, ever ask a business to move from their downtown to yours. I had another Main Street Manager try that in my town once.  Let's just say, it wasn't pretty.

To Packet Or Not To Packet?

I'm sure everyone has an opinion, so here's mine.  It's tempting to want that pretty four-color folder with printable inserts like all the big developers do.  Don't waste your money.  I did once and after an incredibly painful committee process, we finally printed a packet.  It was very attractive, but in the long run the use did not justify the cost.  What we did find useful was creating an organizational brochure that focused on what we as an organization do and how we can help businesses.  It has many uses beyond business recruitment and is easily updated.  Your sales pitch should go beyond demographics, and focus on why your community would embrace and support that business.

So where is the best place to find a new business?  As Dorothy once said, "If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard".  You might be surprised how many of your downtown businesses are thinking of expanding or spinning off a separate brand.  As they say, it's easier to keep an existing business than to find a new one, so make sure you keep your businesses in the loop when new opportunities become available.  Business recruitment is an unpredictable combination of timing and pure luck.  But if you're in the right place at the right time, you never know how much it can benefit your downtown!

The Downtown Geek

Friday, January 4, 2013

Why I Love Main Street

I took some much needed time off over the holidays.  I spent my days playing princesses with my daughter, baking sweet treats and watching every sappy holiday movie I could find.  After a while, I couldn't help but notice a pattern in the plot lines.  A tragedy would befall a person/family (around the holidays, of course) and just when all hope seemed lost, the community would rally together for an impossibly wonderful happy ending.  And every time I encountered one of these movies, I felt myself welling up with tears when the people stepped forward to save the day.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm not exactly the emotional type.  I started to wonder, did I take too much time off?  Was I overwhelmed with holiday spirit?  After much soul-searching (and several Santa sugar cookies), it finally hit me.  This is what we do.  Or more specifically, this is why we do it. 

I came to work in my downtown after stints at an advertising agency and a special events firm.  While I enjoyed the work, I always felt like something was missing.  Truth be told, I was bored at my current job and looking for a new challenge when I heard that they were looking for a Promotions & Marketing Coordinator for my hometown of Rochester.  In my first interview, I met the man who would become my mentor and lifelong friend, Bob Donohue, Director of the Rochester DDA.  We hit it off right away and after 15 minutes of chatting, he told me that they were narrowing the field to 6 candidates and that I would definitely be one of them and to expect a call next week.

So I sat by the phone for the next month and had almost given up when the phone finally rang for my second interview.  I thought I was meeting with Bob again, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked into a room of seven people.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most painful and awkward that I can remember.  Quite frankly, I was talking faster than I could process what I was saying and to this day I am really not quite sure what came out of my mouth.  I just remember a lot of laughing - not sure what that meant.

After I was finally able to get out of there I headed back to work and, like any girl, I called my Dad to tell him how awful it went and that there was no way I was getting the job.  As he was using the standard Dad-isms - "It just wasn't meant to be", "There's something better out there", my other line was ringing.  So I let my Dad go and picked up the call - "Yes, is Kristi Trevarrow there, this is Bob Donohue calling".  I blurted out "hold please" and set the phone down on the desk.  My first thought?  Wow, I've never had anyone call to tell me I didn't get the job.  So I gathered my thoughts, tried to slightly change my voice and picked up the phone again.  Bob told me that as soon as I left the room, they knew that I was the one.  I was speechless.  I immediately accepted the job, not even knowing what I was really getting into and without asking what the job paid.

So what does any of this have to do with those holiday movies?  Hold on, I'm getting there.  What I didn't know then, was how much this job would impact who I am as a person.  I love my job not because of all the cool stuff I get to do every day, but because of what it all amounts to - helping people.  I know that saying that we make a difference may seem cliche, but I really believe it.  It is an amazing feeling to know that what we do every day has the power to create jobs, inspire community pride and investment and, my personal favorite, puts smiles on people's faces. 

Community painting of the historic Rochester Elevator.
Yes, clearly I watched one too many Hallmark Channel movies this holiday season, but the feeling that I got watching those movies is the feeling I get every day that I am fortunate enough to have this job.  And I thank my lucky stars  that for some inexplicable reason, they took a chance on a crazy girl like me.  My perspective on life is completely different than it was before I started here almost 15 years ago.  This job has taught me what is really important - people and our community.  Main Street is what ties it all together.  Through Main Street we are able to make incredible things happen, not through the efforts of a few, but with the support and dedication of many.  And that my friends, is why I love Main Street. 

The Downtown Geek

P.S. - Don't get used to this cuddly version of me.  Next blog, I'll be back to form so you better buckle up and get ready to work!