When Jessica Mullins first heard a health clinic was moving into the nearby Main Street storefront formerly occupied by Whitney Hill Antiques, she was disappointed by the loss of another downtown retail space.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Ugh, it’s not retail and it’s not a restaurant,’” she said.
But Mullins, who owns the Magical Child toy store and World Eye Bookshop at 134 Main St., said part of running a small, independent business is learning to adapt and to look at things from a new perspective.
“It’s happening. Instead of going, ‘Aw man, that stinks,’ I try to think of it as hopefully that’s going to be a lot of foot traffic and a lot of people waiting for appointments,” who could become her next new customers, she said.
As traditional retail continues to change, with much of the marketplace moving online, Mayor William Martin asserts that the main streets of tomorrow are going to be those that provide a richer blend of services — like health care — than seen historically. From there, he said, the private market will take advantage of the increased foot traffic by opening entertainment venues, boutique stores and more.
As the county seat, Greenfield already provides many of the services residents need, such as health care, banking and education, and therefore is well-positioned to take advantage of this change, Martin noted.
Greenfield retailers have found ways to adapt and survive in the changing economic climate, by doing things like lowering operating costs, providing personal service that keeps customers coming back — and taking advantage of foot traffic from downtown service providers.
Many sanguine about downtown
Timothy Grader, president of Holyoke Property Management, recently purchased two prominent buildings in downtown Greenfield, at 278 and 302 Main St. He said he decided to invest in the downtown because of its independent retailers, which Grader said gives the community a unique feel. He also likes the downtown’s walkability. He said today’s developers are designing shopping centers to look and feel like classic downtowns — much like what Greenfield already has.
Grader’s buildings are home to a number of businesses and restaurants, including Thai Blue Ginger. He said he’s done several renovations to the structures so far, including upgrading the heating system, replacing sections of roof and renovating a couple of vacant units that have since been rented.
Michael Tucker, president of Greenfield Cooperative Bank, agrees that Greenfield’s downtown has a unique advantage.
“Malls are struggling right now, and a lot because of online. But because people want to deal with a downtown, they want to deal with an open air center they can walk in and out of from their car, there’s an opportunity there, although retail will never be what it was,” he said.
Tucker said the ideal mix would consist of restaurants and cafes, downtown apartments and some retail that makes sense for Greenfield, like Wilson’s Department Store.
At present, of all the ground floor storefronts on Main Street, only about a half-dozen are vacant.
Other people believe the traditional model of retail will and should remain a big part of the mix — especially in Greenfield.
Roxann Wedegartner, who recently stepped down as chairwoman of the town’s Planning Board after 16 years, said people still like to shop and see goods in person. Communities like Brattleboro, Vt., Keene, N.H., and Northampton have managed to stay successful by keeping an interesting mix of downtown businesses, and Greenfield should keep striving to do the same, said Wedegartner.
“I still believe that the goal really is for a mixed-use development of downtown, not a single use — not just offices, whether they’re services or law offices. That’s a very, very narrow and commerce-killing viewpoint, in my mind,” she said.
Wedegartner said, for example, the town could further encourage mixed-use development by incorporating an adaptive reuse overlay district in its zoning ordinance, which would encourage developers to reuse abandoned, vacant or underutilized buildings.
A changing mix a reality
When Wilson’s Department Store President Kevin O’Neil first came to Greenfield in 1981, he said downtown was home to many national chains, including JC Penney’s, Sears and Woolworth.
“In that time, we lost a lot of the major retail presence on Main Street,” he said. “It was more of a destination for shopping than it is with the mix that’s available today.”
Today, Wilson’s is one of only a handful of independent department stores left in the United States.
Cohn & Company Real Estate President Robert Cohn agrees, saying 44 years ago, most of his tenants were national retailers like Woolworth, Kinney Shoes and Western Auto.
The Cohn family owns several prominent Main Street buildings, including those that house King’s Gym, Opus, Hattapon’s Thai Kitchen and John Doe Jr. Used Records.
“We had all these regional and national brands and one day they woke up in the ’70s when all the malls were coming and said, ‘Although we do well in Greenfield, we’re going to leave because we think we can do better with the cumulative attraction approach that the mall will offer,’ which is now failing 50 years later,” he said.
Today, instead of national chains, Cohn said, most of his tenants are local entrepreneurs with good ideas and ambition, but almost all of them are undercapitalized, which makes their startup precarious. He said entrepreneurs need to have a good business plan going in, and no one should start a business without going to their accountant, their attorney and their banker to get a realistic idea of everything it will take to put that plan together.
Cohn said he tells new business owners that they need to be able to sustain themselves for 12 to 16 — maybe even 18 months without a definitive source of income.
“It’s a real challenge, and sometimes no matter how smart and clever, you’ve got to have a niche. You’ve got to figure out what people need who are here and will come to patronize your widget,” he said.
Cohn added that although the lenders in town help entrepreneurs financially, he believes they must also lend expertise and guidance.
George Gohl, owner of the Garden Cinemas on Main Street and president of the Greenfield Business Association, notes the effects of big box stores on downtown is complicated. Some argue that a big box on the town’s periphery can hurt Main Street, but at the same time, a big box store in another nearby community can hurt, too, Gohl notes. Because Greenfield doesn’t have a Wal-Mart, there is a certain segment of the population that will leave town to shop at the discount retailer in Northampton, Hadley, Orange or New Hampshire, resulting in a multimillion-dollar outflow of retail dollars. He said consumers who shop out of town will likely also patronize restaurants on their shopping trips, or possibly stop to see a movie before heading home.
“Before you know it, you’ve spent six, seven hours (out of town) and you’ve dropped hundreds of dollars, of which none of that money is coming to Greenfield,” he said, adding not everybody does that, but many do.
“We at the Greenfield Business Association try to create events for Greenfield to bring people to downtown,” he said. Those include sidewalk sales, holiday events and more.
E-commerce has also posed a challenge for local retailers.
As more consumers shop online, the brick-and-mortar businesses that will continue to thrive are those that offer face-to-face services, like hair and nail salons, argues John Lunt, the mayor’s assistant for special projects.
“All of those are things you need a local contact for. You can’t get your nails done over the internet. You can’t get your hair cut over the internet,” Lunt said. “That’s a natural shift that has happened in towns as things have changed and people have gotten goods from farther away. Services have risen as a local percentage of businesses.”
John Howland, president of Greenfield Savings Bank, echoed Lunt, saying the downtown is absolutely moving in the direction of services and health care.
“It’s a challenge, it’s tough for retailers out there,” he said.
Setting yourselves apart
But there are ways for traditional retailers to compete, Lunt and Howland agreed. For example, Howland said Greenfield Games on Main Street does a good job of hosting events that bring customers in. On game nights, he said, the store is packed.
“You can’t do that on the internet You can’t have a face-to-face with somebody over the internet, so they do a really good job of differentiating themselves in that regard,” Howland said.
Lunt said the traditional retail stores that are succeeding — not only in Greenfield but across the country — are the ones that find ways to make their offerings unique and market successfully to their local customer base.
“I think services are moving into some areas that retail has already vacated, but I don’t think the services themselves are pushing traditional retail out of downtown. I think retailers here face the same challenges as retailers everywhere — the growth of online retail and big box stores,” he said.
At Wilson’s, O’Neil and former Vice President Tamara Beauregard said the department store has been able to adapt to the changing marketplace by downsizing from four to three floors, and has lowered operating costs by making changes like switching to LED lighting.
Mullins has made similar changes at Magical Child — cutting back on products that only sell a few times a year and switching phone and computer companies to save money. Mullins, who also owns World Eye Bookshop, bought Magical Child from its former owner to save the toy store from closing. But facing declining sales and a rent increase at World Eye’s former Main Street location, she decided to consolidate the two stores into one location earlier this year.
Both Mullins and the heads of Wilson’s said they are able to attract and retain customers by providing a personal touch. At Wilson’s, Beauregard said 13 registers are always staffed; employees carry packages to customers’ cars; and salespeople get to know customers on a personal level.
“I think the only way we can survive is being adaptive and quick-changing and, on the other hand, sticking with our values and being community-oriented, doing the (free gift) wrapping, appreciating our customers. When we say ‘thank you,’ we genuinely mean thank you for coming in, thank you for being part of our day,” Mullins said.
At The Greenfield Gallery on Main Street, the 2-year-old business has found success by doing the same. Co-owner Kate Hunter said the first holiday season the business was open, people came in nearly every day asking if the business offered framing.
The business also sells artwork and offers fine art printing services including film scans, photo restoration and art reproduction.
“We listened to that, so we started doing framing,” Hunter said. “I think that we’re really talking to the customers and what it is they’re wanting and needing in town.”
Ashli Stempel, Precinct 8 town councilor and chairwoman of the town’s Ways and Means Committee, talks up the value of downtown anchors for driving business there.
“We have boutiquey stores and services … boutique, local stores will always continue to do well, but in order for them to succeed, you need to have anchors to drive traffic to the downtown,” she said.
Stempel said she and Lunt have been brainstorming ways to invest in and support those anchors, which include establishments like Hope and Olive restaurant, the Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center, the Saturday Farmers Market and others.
“The mayor’s idea of bringing in a health care service center downtown is a great idea because people are going to have to go to their appointment, maybe go to lunch and pick up something on their way home,” she said, adding, “We need to spend more time making sure that we have more anchors and not spending so much time complaining about that one little storefront is vacant or that one little shop isn’t open. We have to focus on the bigger ones and then the little ones will profit from that.”
Beauregard said although many retailers have left downtown, one thing that has helped the area is destinations like the post office, the courthouse and the YMCA.
“That’s kept downtown Greenfield alive and vital,” she said.
Cohn said right now, the best thing that’s happening for downtown Greenfield — which he was dead-set against originally — is the Center for Human Development’s plan to open a health center in the former Whitney Hill Antiques building on Main Street.
“They’re bringing 100 high-paying jobs. That’s going to help the restaurants and the shoppers. That’s going to be a big boon for downtown,” he said.
Tomorrow: Downtown as gathering place