Foreword: this blog post is the result of an excellent customer experience at the Bellaire Smokehouse, which we’re using in this blog as a prelude to highlighting some best practices that small communities (and their businesses) can deploy for economic development success in their downtown.
Our Bellaire Experience
This week we’ve been in Bellaire, MI on vacation. How did we pick Bellaire? Well, it happens to have a resort that accepts exchange points from a time share our family owns and it is conveniently located within a short drive of my wife’s best friend (and her family).
Bellaire has a population of roughly 1,000 and is located next to Lake Bellaire, but the village itself is not on the lakefront. The village’s Bridge Street is their “main street” and it features restaurants, bars and shops. On it’s face, (and without diving into the data on the community) we assume that two season tourism is a primary driver of the local economy (especially given its proximity to several resorts).
Not to take away from the great food and service we got anywhere else in Bellaire, but the most memorable customer experience came at the Bellaire Smokehouse as my family (5 of us) and our friends (4 of them) were browsing through the various shops in the village. They were familiar with the Smokehouse and suggested we go take a look and it was our full intent to drop in and just look around, especially since our 7 year old is an impatient shopper.
Not long after entering the Smokehouse, Karen (one of the owners) offered our 7 year old a fruit snack from a cookie jar or fruit snacks she had on the top of the counter. Not only did that simple gesture change his mood, but it took some pressure off of us and allowed us to more comfortably look around. And she let us try a couple of samples of smoked fish sausage. By the time we left the store both families had made purchases including a few extras for the kids (like honey sticks).
So why was this such a big deal? Because what Karen did as a small retailer was a perfect example of how small retailers in small communities are winning by creating both “emotional” connections and unique experiences for their customers.
Inc Article on Why Shopping Experiences Lure Customers
Read “Customer Service and the WOW Moment” in this ShopKeep blog
Shopify Blog: The Science of Free Samples (and how it can boost sales)
What Successful Communities & Business Are Doing
One of the biggest challenges for small and rural communities is the struggle to stay relevant and survive (let alone thrive), as they face the squeeze of online shopping, competition from nearby big box stores and, in many cases, declining populations.
For those retailers and communities that are successful, it usually comes down to things they are doing that the unsuccessful ones aren’t. The most common are:
- The retailers aren’t just selling products, they are developing emotional connections and selling customer experiences. Our experience at the Bellaire Smokehouse was awesome, but there are more examples of it. In one instance we saw a small clothing retailer located next door to a restaurant who would offer customers spending over a certain amount “lunch on them” via a small gift card. And for multiple customers visiting the store together (who spent a certain amount) they would let them know the store would be happy to reserve an after hours, by appointment time for them to come back to shop as a group and enjoy some food catered in from next door. Those experiences may sound like something out of a “Real Housewives of. . .” show, but this is happening in a small town of 8,000 in rural Iowa.
- The retailers survive because of a “pack” mentality.The example we most often see is that multiple stores carry each other’s local products and they aren’t afraid to recommend that if you like “X” in our store, you may want to visit Store A to see what they have too. And even more important, if their a clothing retailer is located next to a popular coffee shop, they ARE NOT posting “No food or drink in store” on their entry. Why? Because if I have to shop with my wife without that latte in my hand . . . well, you get the gist.
- They create activity to draw in more activity. Being open from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday doesn’t work for small retailers in small communities. Unless you have heavy traffic from tourists, you’re not open when those who have money can spend it with you.When downtown businesses in small communities stay open nights and weekends, and their communities support them with outdoor spaces and even activities (like live music, extra large sidewalk jenga, etc.) the combined efforts draw large crowds of people into common places, resulting in increased spending. For more ideas, we suggest checking out the Downtown Destination Association (Roger Brooks), who encourages communities wanting vibrant downtowns to have over 250 events per year.
- They have an identity as well as community pride. In Bellaire, I was impressed with how even their police cars reflect community spirit by displaying the school’s “Eagles” logo. Communities that are winning demonstrate their local pride through public art, well maintained public spaces, and investments that support their identity. Communities that are losing out are those that have identities or slogans that do not match their appearance. There would be nothing worse than to be City X with a slogan, “A place you’ll love” that has broken sidewalks, overgrown parks and dilapidated buildings. As the saying goes, if you can’t love yourself, you can’t expect anyone to love you!