Editorial:

Retail initiative shows business sense and community spirit

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The Wyoming Business Council, in coordination with Powell Economic Partnership, is pursuing an initiative to help existing local retailers and new businesses fill the retail void created by Shopko closing.

Local businesses and community leaders should be commended for this effort.

With so much pessimism surrounding retail these days, the plan is likely to be met with a lot of skepticism. Yet it’s not so far fetched.

Bad news makes headlines, which tends to exaggerate problems and fuel gloom and doom narratives that don’t get the scrutiny they deserve.

Year-over-year increases in online sales show rapid increases, which makes it appear e-sales are replacing brick and mortar stores. But the data doesn’t quite support that conclusion. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated e-commerce sales were 8.9 percent of total retail sales in 2017, increasing to 9.7 percent in 2018. Some estimates put the figure at closer to 14 percent in 2018.

Whatever the case, the portion of retail sales completed online remains small, and projections don’t expect e-commerce to grow to more than about 20 percent of total retail sales in the next five years.

Twenty years ago, we panicked over big box stores like Wal-Mart taking over all retail. By today, we would supposedly have a single giant box on the outskirts of Powell where everyone would do all their shopping. Yet downtown still has several shops, and we have two independent grocery stores in town.

That’s not to say the big boxes didn’t have a large impact. The mom and pop general store is gone. However, studies found that stores adjacent to big box retailers actually thrive from spillover traffic. There’s an important caveat, though: The store has to offer something Wal-Mart can’t sell.

An example of this would be a deli that serves hot Mexican dishes. Wal-Mart can sell a frozen burrito super cheap, but a local deli can offer authentic, ethnic cuisine from someone who can recommend a good dish for a community event.

The experience of shopping matters much more today than the practical purpose of the items customers purchase.

“You can’t get the same experience online as you can in the mom and pop store,” Amy Quick of the WBC said.

She’s right. Retail is undeniably changing, and local retailers, if they are to survive, will need to capitalize on the small-town shopping experience that includes not just friendly smiles, but also neighborly customer service. They need to sell the items that people want to touch and try before they buy, and they need to beef up their online presence. All of this is possible.

It’s nice to see local businesses working together during a tough time, with a “can do” attitude, business smarts and support from the WBC and PEP. This is what community is all about.

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