The Number One Complaint About Small Town Businesses

James Dalman is another of my Oklahoma friends. He does terrific web design, and he designed my personal site at I’ve seen his love for small towns. When he told me this story, I begged him to write it up. He’s describing the number one complaint I hear about small town businesses over and over again. You need to share it with other businesses in your town. –Becky 

By James Dalman

"Closed" sign in a business window. I absolutely love small towns. There is something unique and authentic about them. I like the history behind towns and dreaming about the pioneers who started these communities. And whenever I travel, I like to stop and explore the establishments that keep these small towns running day in and day out. I really want to support them. But sometimes I can’t.

Small Towns Don’t Want My Money

Window display in a business that is closed. Maybe they really do, but sometimes they make it extremely difficult. The reason is that most of the time when I’m traveling, I drive and I make my stops around three important times – early breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast and lunch tend to be quick breaks and then back on the road, but the late afternoon is when I am ready to explore. I am done for the day and it’s at this moment where I hope to venture down ‘Main Street’ to talk with local business owners, take photos, and spend my money. The problem with small towns is that so many local businesses on the main strip close between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. I never have the opportunity to support the local shop owners!

A Main Street full of businesses that are not open in the evening.

Staying Open Later May Bring More Business

I think it would be prudent for small town business owners to consider the travel patterns of people and then maximize these opportunities for profit potential. I’ve been in towns where the shops are basically dead during the day. The locals are usually working and travelers are trying to make it to their destinations. The late afternoon and evenings are when Main Street America should come to life.

The Large Chain Got My Business Tonight
James's computer as he sits at McDonald's.
Right now I am spending my time in a McDonalds in Weatherford, Oklahoma. The atmosphere and coffee is good, but I had hoped to give my money to the local coffee place and then spend a couple of hours touring the local shops. It could have been the perfect evening with the incredible weather we have tonight. Unfortunately some people lost out tonight, but maybe they don’t care. I will never know.

Photos by James Dalman

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About Becky McCray

Becky started Small Biz Survival in 2006 to share rural business and community building stories and ideas with other small town business people. She and her husband own a retail liquor store in Alva, Oklahoma, and a small cattle ranch nearby. Becky is an international speaker on small business.

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  1. says

    On Twitter, Jennifer Dunn of Canton, Georgia, added that she hears this from commuters who want to shop local, but can’t. If you’re in a commuter town or bedroom community, your number one tactic to increase local retail sales is adjust your business hours. Yes, I know it will take a long time to change habits, yours and your shoppers’. But if you don’t adjust, you’re guilty of adding to your own problems.

  2. says

    Our “hipster coffee/cafe with wifi” place closes at 3pm. Open at 5am during hunting season, so there’s some adjustment there. There’s a Class A RV park across the street and 2 blocks down. Still….closed at 3pm. Theyre at the busiest intersection in town. Every visitor who comes through here to go to Glacier Park (~2MM/year) drives past this place, which is….closed at 3pm. Occasionally in the winter, theyll have evening music by local artists. The place is packed during those times – but the message doesnt seem to stick because the rest of the year, theyre….closed at 3pm. IMO, small towns need a place like this to gather in the evenings. Not everyone wants to hit a bar and families almost certainly dont.

    • says

      Mark, that IS a perfect illustration as Becky said. In a time where businesses are struggling – and sometimes more in small towns – I wonder why business owners don’t think outside of the box.

    • Anonymous says

      Part of the small town problem, is getting help. The owners run their shops the hours that they are capable of doing, without killing themselves. Marie Clay, Two Rivers Coffee, Riggins Idaho

  3. says

    I think the key is continually recreating business and looking for opportunity beyond the norms of your locality. You can tell when a business is hungry. They are inventive, and work above and beyond the expected hours. We have a local coffee shop in Lander Wyoming (7000) that is open until 7. They added a liquor license and serve wine and beer in the early evening. They are open 7 days a week. I am not sure if they are making it pay, but the thing I see is the hard work and creativity they put into growing their business. 25 miles from here in Riverton (10,000) another coffee house brought in a roaster and is trying to build a following on line for roasted beans from around the world. I am encouraged when I see hard work, inventiveness and creativity to make things work in our small towns. Thanks for your thoughts on what travelers might be looking for in our small towns.

  4. says

    Michael, I tend to agree. New businesses and people new to business are more likely to try “whatever it takes” than people who have been around for a decade or two.

  5. says

    Thanks for mentioning my tweet, Becky! This actually inspired a great conversation on my Facebook page, too. Some people did worry that being open longer would cost businesses payroll and utilities that they can ill-afford. A couple of us want small businesses to do a split shift and perhaps close a couple of slow hours in the afternoon to mitigate that.

    Like you said, it all comes down to getting with the program. I edit the Outright blog and Tony from Artfire recently wrote a great guest post for us on all the businesses that disappeared due to refusing to change with the times:

    It’s a good read. Of course, it’s also preaching to the choir on this blog.

    • says

      Jennifer, it’s natural for existing businesses to look at the cost first. New businesses are more likely to take a risk on different, split or longer hours. Thanks for sharing that link, as well.

    • says

      Jennifer, I like the idea of a split shift concept. There are those hours in the afternoon or mid mornings where business is much slower.

      I can see how a business owner looks at cost vs. benefit, especially in towns that might not get as much drive through traffic. I would think that most towns along major highways or Interstates have more opportunity to capitalize on later hours.

  6. says

    Becky great point. A co-worker and i were just discussing that very point yesterday. One of my clients who just opened her business looked at her main competitors and decided to open on Mondays since everyone else was closed. I will keep you posted on how that works out.

  7. says

    As a resident of a small town/city that is something of a bedroom community for a large metropolitan area, this post is completely on target. In my town, Thursday nights are designated as the “late nights” when many local businesses are open until 9pm. And every Third Thursday has a special “celebration” attached by, I think, our local Chamber of Commerce. But the facts remains that daytime traffic is not as strong as late afternoon and evening and that most people can’t and don’t want to limit their shopping to one night a week.

    As a longtime “road warrior” who has spent a lot of time off the beaten path (not on freeways and major highways), I continue to be amazed at the number of restaurants and shops in smaller towns that seem to be ignoring the changing traffic patterns and adjusting their hours accordingly. I’m sure it’s not just my business that they’re losing.

    All it would take is a simple and regular tally by all merchants of how many visitors come in the shops during each hour of the day. For some businesses, this could be tallied through their cash register receipts. In fact, there’s a lot of information in those records that isn’t being used.

    We all lose when small town businesses don’t pay attention to changes in marketplace traffic. Data. Statistics. Patterns. They’re important.

  8. Anonymous says

    Hi, I own a small restaurant called River Rock Cafe in a small town called Riggins in Idaho situated along the beautiful free flowing Salmon River. We are one of the towns you would enjoy visiting. We are open 7 days a week serving breakfast, lunch and dinner; homemade and delicious. We open at 5:30am,or 6:00 depending on the season and close at 10:00pm Mon-Thurs. and 11:00pm Fri.-Sun. We are just now going to winter hours which will mean we close at 9 and 10 respectively. I completely understand your frustration and appreciate your perspective. As you can see by our hours, we aim to please everyday, all day. We understand what it takes to stay in business and are happy to accomodate our guests as much as we can. In fact, we tell our staff to continue serving customers when we are open and have tables towards the end of the night should more guests walk in at our around the closing hours. We tell them, though we sign your paycheck, our customers ensure you have one! I will say as a business owner for 17 years, the hours between 2:00 and 5:00pm incure the highest cost of labor because it is the slowest time of day and I know some people just have to cut back where they can. We are proud to say we work our business to the fullest extent and aim to please! Maybe you can join us sometime for delicious homemade biscuits and gravy, hand-pattied burger, stuffed sandwich, fresh unique salad, pizza, homemade chicken fettuccine alfredo,Prime Rib on Friday or Saturday nights or something else from our very extensive menu!Check us out at or email us at would love to feed you!

    • says

      I’ll take the biscuits and gravy, please. And do sign your name when you comment, please. :) I applaud your efforts to stay responsive to your customers, especially on setting hours.

  9. Sara says

    As someone who used to work graveyards, this post hit the spot. Sleeping during the day is easiest on this schedule since most everyone else is at work or school, but that means finding a local business that will serve you pancakes (or even open) at 10pm or a cheeseburger at 8am is impossible. Unfortunately, it’s not a small town problem either, large cities are just as bad.


  1. […] My friend James was trying to buy a coffee in a small town in the evening. The local coffee shop was closed. In fact, all the downtown businesses were closed. He ended up at McDonald’s. He wrote about it on Small Biz Survival: The Number One Complaint About Small Town Businesses. […]