Much has been written about approaching changes in our retail sector and a recent editorial concluded that change is something that many in Old Town don’t do very well.
Would that all of us had the luxury to resist change. Savvy retailers and community leaders, who must stay two steps ahead of evolving retail dynamics, don’t. In sheer size and purchase power, younger generations have displaced the baby boomers that dominated retail’s target market for decades. That demographic shift and Amazon’s impact have forced the retail industry into a churning transformation.
While some national chains are closing stores, many small retailers are finding ways to stay competitive. They provide amazing in-store experiences that shoppers can’t find online, yet seek ways to match online convenience at every customer touchpoint. Stores are becoming entertainment centers, and pop-ups are filling empty spaces with activity and becoming launchpads for new ventures. Virtual stockrooms require less space and, as a result, many stores are downsizing and sharing space.
Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center and Visit Alexandria are preparing a spring retail summit to further explore these “Experiential Retail” approaches.
Mastercard reported small businesses saw year-over-year growth of 7.3 percent, in comparison to 4.6 percent growth in overall retail. Several local retailers reported even stronger performance in 2017. Clearly, independent businesses are still succeeding, but that doesn’t mean they can sit back and coast.
In addition to merchants having to be agile, community leaders and planners must make complicated decisions to ensure that our commercial districts and infrastructure are viable today and into the future. These decisions require careful analysis and tough choices that don’t always play well to critics who resist any change or forward planning. As noted, that’s particularly true in Old Town.
Every community has naysayers who forecast dire consequences of change. Their letters appear regularly in local papers to criticize leaders and complex decisions on controversial matters, yet their predictive record is poor. Two examples: For many years antagonists have accused officials of fiscal mismanagement. Meanwhile, our city has continued to earn the highest credit ratings. They also fought the approval of sidewalk dining, now regarded as a crucial amenity. Undaunted, they continue to protest anything that will attract more people to the neighborhood and accuse officials and planners of not caring.
We’re entitled to disagree on plans and policies, and citizens should be engaged on issues like the quality of life and sound management within their community. However, dissenting opinions will have greater credibility if they are based in research and an understanding of current issues and trends.
Thriving communities welcome new ideas and approaches. They attract creative minds and talent that strengthen the local economy, add vitality and improve quality of life. As retail evolves, it impacts all of us. We’re in the midst of the most complex change the sector has experienced. To succeed, merchants will have to rethink their strategies and approaches, and it behooves our community and its leaders to engage those changes thoughtfully. We can’t afford – literally and figuratively – to reflexively resist change simply because it feels uncomfortable.
Bill Reagan is the executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.