Downtown shopping is “cool” again, according to Jim Thompson, who spoke to local merchants Monday night about national retail trends and how to capitalize on the them.
Thompson, who worked in retail for over 20 years, is now with the Iowa Main Street program and was here as part of resource team visit sponsored by Missouri Main Street Connection. He spoke to about 30 downtown merchants at The Landing.
He started his presentation with saying profit is not a dirty word and that downtown retailers must actively work to grow their businesses if they expect to be around long term.
Maintaining storefronts and buildings is important, he said, and expensive. He suggested that retailers who own their buildings consider utilizing the upper floors for residential to maximize their income.
Thompson said a new breed of customers, those who are savvy with social media, is emerging and retailers must be prepared for them. The Generation X and Millennia shoppers are the future, he said, but shops must cater to them as well as the Baby Boomers to be successful.
For these younger consumers, technology is an integral, daily part of their lives, so retailers need to have an online presence even beyond just a website, he said, adding Facebook, online coupons, Twitter and other social media must be embraced.
“Social media is not going away — it’s too big to fail,” he said. “So you need to capture the online market as well.”
One suggestion was creating online, quality testimonials to draw shoppers in the store or online. Another was offering online coupons or utilizing QR codes.
“Take charge of your business. You can’t just wait for business to happen, you have to create it,” he said.
Thompson said shoppers today also are expecting an “experience” when they shop so he suggested retailers stay open late during special events or plan their own, such as hosting wine or food tastings.
“Meeting up is the new staying home,” he said. “People want to go out and have an experience and create memories, and you need to figure out how to do that.”
He also said the trend has changed from the appeal of big-box stores to smaller stores because they can provide a better experience.
“That’s why you’re seeing Wal-Mart put in smaller stores and smaller, neighborhood grocery stores opening up, and you need to be prepared to compete against that,” he said.
He also encouraged stores to support local nonprofits and let their customers know that, and even partner up with those groups to host an event.
One thing that has not changed, he stressed, is quality customer service.
He also said it’s important for downtown merchants to know what other shops are selling so they can refer customers to them because Washington is a visitor destination, as well as a local shopping base, and the idea is to keep those consumers downtown.
Thompson said shoppers today are looking at total value, versus just the lowest price.
Much to Offer
Downtown Washington has a lot to offer, he said, and has become a restaurant/bar destination.
That’s good because it draws people downtown,” he said. “You want more than one of anything so people have choices and options, and that’s the same with retailing.”
Thompson said sometimes a merchant may feel threatened when a similar store opens, but they shouldn’t because it will actually benefit both stores, drawing more people in because there’s more than one shop to go in.
The historic buildings also have great appeal, he said, but merchants need to make sure their interiors are just as appealing.
“It’s your Main Street group’s job to get people in the district, but it’s your job to get them in your store,” he said.
Thompson also was very complimentary of the Farmers’ Market downtown.
“You guys also have one of the coolest Farmers’ Markets I’ve even seen,” he said.
Thompson said now more than ever is the time for downtown merchants to capitalize on what the district has to offer.
“You are a destination, you have retailers, you have the restaurants and bars . . . you have the ambience, so take charge and make it happen,” he said.