Within days, Powell’s Shopko will officially close, leaving the Big Horn Basin without an important shopping option. This could, however, be an opportunity for local businesses.
The Wyoming Business Council contracted with the National Main Street Organization to develop a retail analysis, in hopes of helping existing retailers and entrepreneurs fill the gap created by Shopko’s absence. The results were presented in a Thursday webinar, and the Powell Economic Partnership hosted a discussion with local business representatives.
Christine Bekes, executive director of PEP, said the analysis contained valuable information for the region’s business community.
“The information presented, particularly the data and their analysis, will definitely be helpful for PEP/Powell Chamber and our members as we make strategic decisions about what we need to do,” Bekes said, speaking after the presentation.
Matthew Wagner, vice president of revitalization programs with Main Street America, presented the findings. Wagner explained Shopko’s failure was part of a changing retail landscape nationwide, and not just a passing trend.
“It’s going to be very difficult to attract another Shopko-like store,” he said.
Still, Wagner expressed a lot of optimism for the potential of local retailers to fill local shopping gaps, noting that nationally, small businesses account for 60 percent new jobs since the end of the recession in 2014.
Despite short-term pains in the retail arena, “I think this is headed in the right direction in the long-term,” Wagner said.
Wagner didn’t underestimate the impact online shopping has had on the retail landscape.
“Online is definitely a competitor,” he told the webinar audience.
The short-term recommendations of the analysis were for existing businesses to share data with each other, to help further understand best practices in the region. Wagner also recommended communities develop short-term financial tools that local businesses can use to acquire new inventory, something the Wyoming Business Council is exploring.
The analysis also suggests a regional business directory is needed — rather than just a local one — and the area could benefit from buy local campaigns. It also stresses that local retailers need to have Friday evening and Saturday hours to maximize sales. Some limited Sunday hours are important as well.
Longer-term recommendations include more entrepreneurial support to increase the establishment of new businesses and “pop-up” spaces, which are smaller commercial-space options. These can be erected cheaply on vacant properties and parking lots. The presentation showed how other communities have built commercial spaces out of used, metal shipping containers. The goal is to create more commercial space options with greater flexibility for retailers.
The analysis also recommended mobile retailing, similar to food trucks, as an option.
The analysis’ findings were based on online surveys, focus groups, and market data. Though online surveys don’t always get a good response, the Mainstreet survey received 507 responses from residents in Powell, Greybull, Worland and Thermopolis, which are all losing Shopko stores. The respondents included a mix of income levels, but nearly 75 percent were female.
Throughout communities in the Basin, the surveys consistently showed that the items shoppers are most likely to shift to other local businesses in the wake of Shopko’s closure are pet supplies, wellness and hygiene items, seasonal products, lawn and garden goods, groceries, health and beauty products, and appliances. Sports and recreation items, as well as housewares, also showed some potential, whereas shoppers were most likely to go online for apparel, shoes, and electronics. This gives local retailers some idea as to what products might have potential for sales.
The analysis also showed price was the biggest consideration shoppers consider before making choices. Buying local was shown to be an important consideration, but it was last of the top five factors. Other considerations included variety of selection, convenience, and quality.
The surveys also noted that hours of operation were key to capturing local shoppers’ dollars. Friday and Saturday were the days respondents reported they were most likely to shop, indicating local retailers needed to be open Friday evenings and Saturdays. Most shopping is done after 5 p.m. as well.
The analysis also utilized focus groups to better understand retail trends in the region. The focus groups found product opportunities in arts and craft supplies, school supplies, linens, appliances, and hunting and fishing gear. The participants also indicated that, when not shopping in their local communities, most of their shopping is done in Cody and Billings.
The data showed the average household in the region spent $36,000 annually, resulting in $681 million in potential spending in the region.
Wagner noted it would be nearly impossible for local businesses to capture all those dollars, but there are a lot of opportunities for local businesses to capture more of that money. Currently, the data showed about 58 percent of those sales are done within the Basin region. The largest opportunties for recapture were in groceries, specialty groceries, health and beauty products, and sporting goods.
Bekes said the findings, while offering good ideas for future direction, were in line with some initiatives PEP had undertaken. She said they are considering how they might incentivize the “pop-up” concept and think more regionally.
“Our office considers our Big Horn Basin partners to be an integral piece of our overall efforts to grow our businesses, economic prosperity and community vibrancy,” Bekes said.