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Main Street managers: cooperation theme for small biz success

Talk with the managers of Mississippi Main Street Association programs across the state, and you will find a common theme when discussing what it takes to make a small business successful. Small businesses need to cooperate with each other and community organizations like Main Street and the Chamber of Commerce in order to promote the attractiveness and appeal of the shopping district as a whole.

“Merchants don’t exist singly as an island, but as a community of merchants,” said Camp Best, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation and the Fondren Urban Main Street program in Jackson. “And they must think and act that way. Sometimes it is hard to think outside your little area. But with those shopping areas that are successful, like Fondren, it is because merchants cooperate and work together.”

Best said co-op advertising is extremely important, and a great, cost-efficient way for merchants in a Main Street area to prosper.

“What we normally do is arrange a co-op ad for our merchants, and our program will pay for the banner on the ad,” Best said. “Then the merchants get a reduced cost in doing the ad.”

Another cooperative effort that is one of Fondren’s most important marketing tools is a colorful brochure on the historic Fondren District. The brochure includes a customer-friendly map that shows how easy it is to move from shop to shop.

Fondren merchants also cooperate on a number of district-wide events. For example, a holiday open house called Fondren Unwrapped was held November 18. The Main Street program matches merchant dollars to advertise events such as the holiday open house, and a similar spring open house called Arts, Eats and Beats.

Jim High, assistant director of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, agrees that small businesses banding together is the best way to assure the success of both individual businesses and the entire shopping district.

“One of the big advantages for a small business is to be located in an area that is successful such as a downtown area,” High said. “Small businesses located in downtown Tupelo have an identity and a sense of place. A small business out on a side street by itself doesn’t capture that kind of identify that is beneficial for a small business. I’m suggesting that small businesses need to band together with other small businesses in order to promote themselves, and they can do that best by being in a downtown area that has a Main Street program.”

High believes that good works done to benefit the community also end up helping businesses. Many small business owners volunteer on committees for special events or activities such as improving the appearance of the downtown.

“That widens their circle of friends and influence, and helps to promote their store at the same time,” High said. “My suggestion is that small business owners need to get involved in their community activities.”

Bob Wilson, director of program services, Mississippi Main Street Association, said what works best to promote small businesses is not independent marketing, but interdependent marketing. He suggests that merchants involved in co-op advertising use many different types of media-newspapers, radio, cable television and especially direct mail. That can be tough for one small business to do.

“Advertising is all about impressions,” Wilson said. “You want to touch as many different types of consumers as possible. For example, radio listeners may not read the newspaper. You want to maximize marketing dollars.

“Almost every merchant is spending money on advertising and marketing. We don’t want them to spend more. We just want them to spend more smart, increasing the number of impressions they are getting within the advertising budget they have now.”

One reason malls and shopping centers are effective in marketing is because consumers know if they go to one mall store and can’t find what they want, there are enough other stores in the area that eventually they will find what they came to buy.

Wilson said for downtown areas to create the same confidence by consumers, at least 70% of merchants need to be open extended hours. Traditionally many small businesses have closed at 5 p.m. But today with most women and men working, businesses need to be open extended hours.

“Women are responsible either directly or indirectly for 80% of retail sales,” Wilson said. “And 90% of women between 18 and 44 are in the workforce. It is estimated that 67% of all retail sales are made after 6 p.m. and on Sundays. That is a figure from the National Main Street Center. In addition to that, every downtown office worker spends an average of $130 per week, and the majority spends that money after work. Those are two pretty heavy-duty statistics that tell you retailing is changing.

“Two years ago, that study showed 60% of sales were after 6 p.m. and on Sundays. So you can see the trending of when people are shopping. It is not that surprising when you think about it. Most families now are two-wage families. They are working from 8 to 5 p.m. So if the hours of your business are Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5, you are missing out on the bulk of that buying traffic.”

How late to stay open can depend on the size of the community. In smaller communities, 6 p.m. is usually fine. But Wilson said in larger towns, you have to think about how much time it takes for someone to get off work and come by your business.

Whether talking about consumers having confidence they can go downtown after work and find the stores open, or co-op marketing and advertising, consistency is a key factor.

“Merchants who go with 15 other merchants advertise all year round leading up to the biggest retail season,” Wilson said. “You want those impressions building all through the year. And by doing advertising all year around, you are getting better rates from the newspaper. You are paying a lower rate and sharing with 15 or 20 other merchants.”

Special events are good, and part of a good promotional mix. But there can be a danger of relying too much on festivals. Merchants can resent frequent closing off of the streets for events downtown, especially if that event makes it harder for their regular customers to reach them. Some merchants complain special events actually cut into their sales.

“You’ve got 10,000 people outside, but none coming in to shop,” Wilson said. “But how much would you have to spend to get 10,000 people outside your stores? You need to get out there and be visible. Do flyers about special programs, and really take advantage of those crowds. Don’t just sit in your store and wait for people to come in.”

Such events should be considered for their long-term impact, not just for immediate retail sales. Events that attract many people to an area to have a good time can improve the public’s perception of the area as a fun place to shop.

“They remember the good time they had, and are more apt to be motivated to return to those stores later on,” Wilson said.

Many communities in Mississippi are working to improve their tourism product. Studies have shown that while tourists come to visit attractions, their number one activity is shopping. Merchants who want revenue from tourists need to be open when the tourists are there, and many times that is on weekends.

“So, if you want to have a good tourism product, you have to have good shopping, and vice versa,” Wilson said.

Since small business owners need time off, an option for small specialty stores can be to use a local artist to man the store some of the hours on weekends.

“Artists have a vested interest in your store doing good, and taking care of your cash register,” Wilson said. “Plus you can market ‘artist on duty Sunday afternoon.’ People are turned on by that. They like to actually talk to the artist.”

Small businesses also need to remember that one of the best things they have going for them is knowing their customers.

“Small business more than any other type of business can know who their customers are and can deal with their customers personally,” said High. “That is the reason most of them are successful. It is really more than good customer service. In a small business, they know customers most of the time on a first name basis. That allows them to give an even higher level of service because they know their customers’ wants, needs and desires and can provide all manner of assistance in their shopping experience. The number one advantage of small business is that personal contact with their customers.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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