Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, is eating itself alive as even its workers on six-figure salaries are abandoning the Bay Area because they can’t afford to settle down there.
More and more people are leaving Silicon Valley and areas like it to settle in smaller towns where the roots of community run deep.
Sure, it’s partly a question of affordability, but it’s also a fallback to a longing for culture and community – a trend that bodes well for retailers who truly value ‘local’.
The answer to retail Armageddon is a return to the good old days
Many column inches have been given to the retail Armageddon and the apparent death of small stores.
However, local retail is dying in much the same way that small-town America is.
Which is to say that it’s been through a rough time but is changing to emerge as a proverbial phoenix.
Case in point: Best Buy was facing sure death until it pivoted its strategy to grow its store sales through 2019. The key? Better experiences for shoppers.
Notably, Amazon has pivoted the same way, opening brick and mortar stores and acquiring Whole Foods. Nordstrom, too, is a big-box which has gone “little”, with Nordstrom Local opening in Manhattan.
Nordstrom Local is a different approach to retail: there’s no inventory in-store but consumers can return products from Nordstrom’s competitors, as well as offering services like charity drop-offs and shoe repairs.
However, the key is in the title – in the ‘local’.
Just as people are moving out of expensive, sprawling cities for a better quality of life, they’re also valuing shopping experiences that cater to them and returning to local stores for a welcome sense of community.
After all, Amazon opening local, physical stores can best be described as “doing what brick and mortars have all always done” – but with the shine of fancier technology.
The future of retail is local
Giulio Graziana is President at VideoGamesNewYork, an independent video game store and Pointy retailer, in East Village, New York, and he understands more than most the importance of community. As a passion-led project, VideoGamesNewYork is known for its unique collection of games and gaming systems.
More than that though, it’s thriving because of its place at the heart of the community – and the culture that comes with it.
“Independent stores are and aren’t connected to local communities,” he says. “To survive and thrive, you need to give customers a reason to come and shop. You need to develop a niche type of offer that goes way beyond the local community. That way, the store assumes the role of an attraction and helps to define the community itself.”
Indeed, he reasons, “A good independent store helps shape the area and community that it lives in. It affects who lives in the area and who visits it. Good businesses attract other good businesses.”
It’s a similar thought echoed by Suzanne and Wade Peterson, owners of Learning Express Toys, Reno, Nevada. Silicon Valley-transplants, the Petersons moved to Reno to spend more time with their family.
Their store is a passion project entrenched in the community. Reno isn’t a small town by any stretch, but community and experience matter: a parent once drove three and a half hours from rural Nevada to the store so that their child could experience a specific toy for the first time.
It’s a kind of experience or moment that could never happen with online shopping. As VideoGamesNewYork’s Giulio says, “[we] define ourselves as a cultural experience about video games.”
However, the buck doesn’t just stop in-store.
Community – at the heart of progress
The idea of creating a community isn’t a new one: many businesses have tried it – to varying degrees of success.
The lynchpin is on authenticity: the community-building can’t just be stacked as a marketing play to get more people in-store. It’s the difference between a marketing ploy like sponsoring a team to get your logo out there, versus offering something real.
Communities aren’t built on a pretty façade. Ultimately, your place in the community (both local and in a wider context, for example, with video game stores and its subculture) hinges on how you give back.
The key is in finding use: e.g. convenience store owners could donate produce close to its use-by-date to homeless shelters or organize charity drives in the community. The idea of ‘community shops’ is also on the rise, where supermarkets in the U.K. offer goods at discounted rates to those in need.
And no, it’s not all a case of charity. Serving your customers is just as important – as is making them feel as if they’re a part of something bigger than themselves.
As Giulio says, “With independent stores, you breathe in the history of the store. Coming to the store makes you feel something. We want customers to feel that every time they visit us.”
Of course, outreach is important, but in-store communities are pivotal too.
The options are many. Pet stores could organize community walks or pet get-togethers in parks. Bookstores could offer literacy classes or free internet access for students in the evenings. Likewise, hardware stores could run discounted or free classes in hands-on skills.
These events bring people in-store and it enforces the idea of experience mattering above all else. They get people talking and encourage socializing – all big positives to community.
More and more people may be taking to their computers and mobile devices, but they still crave interaction and a feeling of belonging. It’s this feeling that trumps all else – that creates communities based on interests or goals or wants.
Brick and mortar stores can – and should – be at the heart of it. It’s a simple shift: from product to people.
As Giulio succinctly puts it, “Independent stores are part attraction and part history. They are a defining piece of the local community.”