Small town store owners, does any of this sound familiar?
“I feel bad when customers tell me they can’t come during my hours. We have had a couple successful events in the evenings that brought customers in, but most attempts have been a bust. A shop I follow on Facebook recently tried for a month to stay open in the evenings. She said she only had customers after 5 a couple evenings. She went back to closing at 5, and who could blame her. A nearby town has First Friday events, with music, food etc. I heard through the grapevine that the first year or 2, shops stayed open. But, no one went in them. They bought food and listened to the music, but did not go in the shops. So eventually, the shops didn’t bother to stay open anymore.”
If so, you’re not alone. That’s a quote from a real store owner. But the challenges in it could have been written by any number of rural retailers, maybe even you.
In our survey of rural challenges last year, adapting to being open later hours was the most selected challenge by small-town business owners.
The pressures to stay open later keep mounting. You’ve read a dozen times how the best retail times are evenings and weekends. The chamber keeps asking you to be open for evening events. People tell you they would shop with you more if you were open later.
When you’ve tried staying open an extra hour, you’ve sat there alone.
One-night shopping events do help get things started But they are just a one night stand, not a long term relationship.
Monthly evening events bring more people downtown for concerts or art. But without a business plan, they remain primarily entertainment events.
That means it’s up to you to turn them from random events into a profitable new time. Here’s one solution.
Draw people in with special activities in your store.
If there is a big event drawing people downtown, use an activity in your store to get them through the door.
For an art walk, host an artist or musician in your store. When I walked through downtown Hutchinson, Kansas, during their monthly art walk, I saw artists and musicians in every business, coordinated by the event committee. Every place was crowded. I had trouble getting store owners to take a minute for an interview. (And store owners weren’t shy about telling me–off the record–if they thought they got an artist that wasn’t one of the best draws! That means they recognized that having a well-matched artist with a good following brought in more customers.)
Start by inviting your own customers who are artists, musicians, craftspeople or traditional artisans to join you in your store.
Apply this to any kind of event, coordinating your activities with the events going on, whether it’s a concert, arts event or just a shopping event.
Even when there is no event scheduled downtown, you can put on your own classes, lessons, demonstrations and hands-on activities. These can be related to your store, but that’s not a requirement. A clothing store owner in rural Spain told me she offered language lessons to draw customers. Inevitably, her language students would stay and shop a bit after each lesson.
Start thinking now about the next downtown event in your town and how you’ll add an activity in your store to make it worth your time.
These are the kind of practical suggestions that Deb Brown and I have for you in our Downtown After 5 webinar. Join us.
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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 have a small cattle ranch and are lifelong entrepreneurs. Becky is an international speaker on small business and rural topics.