It was back in the very early 1960’s when the big box retailers Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target opened their first locations in America. You can mark that date as to when small towns began the long, slow decline from prosperity. Add in and their free 2-day shipping in the 2000s and you have a bleak picture.

BUT there is good news.

In 2018, the big box stores, including some of the smaller retail chains, have been tightening their budgets, closing stores, and trying to figure out how to attract the newest generation of picky buyers. “Millennials” are changing the game. Not just digitally savvy, but having grown up in the digital world, they crave experiences that online shopping and large box retailers cannot offer them. And that spells opportunity for Main Street Shops!

Today, small-town businesses offer something unique. When taken together, on a Main Street, or in a small town, small businesses offer products, services, and experiences that the big giants just cannot compete with. The problem is that small-town businesses have been struggling for so long that they forgot the most important element of success: Community.

The unique importance of all the collective small businesses creates a “destination” filled with unique products and experiences that people, not just millennials, but all people crave in a digital world. Somehow, while navigating the digital landscape, small businesses stopped focusing on their communities as a collective and began viewing each other as competitors. Instead of working together, they put blinders on and kept focused on capturing online visitors, forgetting that it is the people who make up a town, not just Facebook likes and emoji’s.

So What is A Small Town To Do?

There are some common traits of survival and an economic boom to main streets that are worth noting. Some things merchants cannot control, like rents, town and street signage, parking, or even public bathrooms. But property developer Roger Brooks found that there are some common traits that can turn a small town into a “destination.” Here are the critical ones on the list:

1. Parking: Space to park without high parking meters rates–a must. Make sure people know where it is before they come into town. A map works nicely!

2. Signs: A welcoming sign coming into town is something visitors said gave a very friendly first impression. It shows pride and personality. Make sure it is brightly painted too!

3. A Common Finding System: What that means is that there is a source of information with all the local shops, cafes, and places to stay for people to view together. Most visitors do not go to the Chamber pages unless they are looking to relocate, but a town merchant site, with shops and food and services, presented well and updated often is something that Google is sure to direct people to when they are looking for things to do. Sure there is Yelp and Trip Advisor, but most people go there to “confirm” a decision, not to find it. So a unified merchant page is something that not only makes Google happy but visitors as well.

4. Good first impression. This is how we feel when we are on the actual street and if you know anything about the fast-moving millennials, you will know that this first impression is the one that sticks. People today want to visit places that have a “sense of place” because it reflects the entire neighborhood. Potted plants, street lamps, beautiful window fronts…all these things combine for great Instagram opportunities (something Millennials, and now their parents love.) It gives us a visual “experience” that is missing on our Facebook pages.

5. Store Signage. Think about how you feel when you see a sign on a business door. Something like “We’ll be Open in” vs. “Closed” can make a big difference to people who venture out of their comfort zone and into your town. Take a moment to really look at your business, with your rose-colored glasses off! And please, make sure your store hours are clearly marked (and on your Yelp page.) One other signage tip: have a sign that tells people where the restrooms, Brooks noted that this gave towns a greater appeal. (I guess young folk doesn’t like asking questions!)

6. Activities and Entertainment bring downtown to life! Having music, merchandise outside on the sidewalk and art shows was a number one draw for Millennials to get in their car and drive to a town. This requires a coordinated effort–not just from the chamber or the schools, but the shop owners. It takes a whole community to become a destination!

7. Marketing is experiential: focusing on activities, not buildings. People want feelings, not historical buildings to guide them. Sure they like the history, but love the feeling of visiting a town that offers events throughout the year that make the visit fun, interesting, unique, and photo-worthy. The Number one tip that this real estate developer gave to the tourism board was “Develop an activities guide that promotes all the businesses with things to do throughout the year.” That is what gets people back into town, and most importantly, promotes you!

The benefits are astounding! Small Business Saturday has become one of the biggest shopping days for people who want to support small towns and the small businesses that fill them. So get out of your own way and pull those blinders off! Go next door and introduce yourself to the new coffee shop owner. Sure they have weird tattoos, but they also have ideas and a passion just like you! It takes a village. It takes a whole community to become a destination. But it starts by working together!

#SocialMediaMarketing #SocialMediaStrategy #SmallBusinessMarketing #MainStreet

Originally published on LINKEDIN

Maria Bereket, Digital Social Media Marketing Strategy, and Management for Small Business. Speaker and Trainer. Call me if you want to talk about a strategy for your business. (213) 262-9858