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Opinion: Supporting independent retailers, restaurants in Amazon age

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Downtown Springfield is proud to be home to more than 60 locally owned restaurants and two dozen independent retail stores. In an era of rapidly expanding digital competition, ever-evolving consumer tastes and a tight labor force, entrepreneurs need and deserve support across many fronts.

E-commerce will expand nationally from its current 10 percent of retail sales to 17 percent over the next two years, according to a recent presentation by Greenberg Development Services, a North Carolina-based consulting firm for downtown and neighborhood business districts. Amazon currently represents 5 percent of total retail sales and 49 percent of all 2018 online purchases, according to eMarketer.

Restaurants continue to see measured growth in sales nationally but face rapidly evolving consumer tastes, a tight workforce and intense competition. Springfield’s 3 percent unemployment rate and the nearly 600 eating and drinking places within a 15-minute drive of downtown reinforce those realities.

Pressure on restaurants and retail is greater than ever before. Here are three ways to support local businesses:

1. Ease regulatory constraints.
The development community works closely with the city and Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce to foster a business-friendly climate. The chamber hosts monthly Developer Issues Input Group meetings to proactively discuss and collaboratively address matters as they arise. Springfield was one of the first communities in the region to have electronic filing of plans to its Building Development Services Department to expedite construction projects. It also works with the city to keep licensing and development fees as reasonable as possible.

While DIIG has been very beneficial for the broader development community, one issue has remained on the city’s back burner for too long. Center city small businesses – many of which have no privately owned space in front for signage – are required to secure insurance coverage of $3 million for any signage on or over the public right-of-way. It results in an additional operating cost to the business of $500-$1,000 per year, and the higher limits can be difficult for new businesses to obtain.

Downtown Springfield Association worked with the community improvement districts for downtown and Commercial Street a year ago to request the insurance limit be reduced to $1 million. That request is awaiting review by the Plans and Policies Committee. Signage and branding is vitally important for all new ventures, and this could be another small but valuable step in keeping small businesses competitive.

2. Explore authentic places.
Fall is a time for kids and families to get back into their school year routines. Parents, and even a few students, are grateful for the structure. However, it is just as important to deliberately break out of the comfort zones of favorite restaurants and stores.

Within the past year, downtown has gained a cookie dough shop, Greek restaurant, surf shop and resale boutique. And it will soon have its first axe-throwing establishment, with Craft Axe Throwing slated to open in the next few weeks. In a vibrant historic business district, there are always new places to discover.

Attending some of downtown’s wide variety of street festivals is a fun way to experience the district at different times of the year and check out the most recent additions.

3. Empower businesses you love.
After connecting with a favorite coffee shop, sidewalk cafe, ethnic restaurant or retailer, take the time to get to know the owner. Each has an intriguing story of what led them to this place and their aspirations for the future.

For example: How did Cricket Fries’ time as the coordinator of First Friday Art Walk lead to her opening A Cricket in the House? What led Tim and Cass Clegg to start a doughnut franchise on Park Central West? How did Terry Bloodworth’s time at Silver Dollar City turn into his own glass-blowing shop on Campbell?

An important way to keep your favorite store is to give them regular feedback. Let the owner know what you love and what might be done differently. Give them your reactions to their branding and social media. Finally, be sure to invite your friends and family to experience what makes that business unique. Word of mouth advertising from loyal customers is one of the most valuable assets for small businesses.

Owning a small business in this digital age is not for the faint of heart. Having a healthy mix of quirky and fun storefronts is vital to Springfield’s downtown and its ability to be the region’s home for dining, entertainment, higher education and talent attraction. Everyone has a role to play in cultivating a strong climate for the success of local entrepreneurs. 

Rusty Worley, executive director of Downtown Springfield Association, can be reached at rusty@itsalldowntown.com.

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