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An astonishing shopping statistic

There was an astonishing statistic in Wednesday’s Post-Searchlight that should be worrisome to those of us in business.

It was the question of the week, and it asked, “Do you plan to do most of your Christmas shopping in Bainbridge?”

To which, 68 percent answered “No.”

Local businesses that depend on good cash flow in December, including mine, should be distressed by that figure.

I certainly was, until the spouse of the house pointed out that one of the biggest retail problems in Bainbridge was lack of choice among big-ticket items. To shop bigtime, you have to hit the highway.

Significant explanation or not, I am still mortally distressed.

Yet, that 68 percent figure is awfully high, and I suspect many of those responding to the survey believe that if you want to shop for whatever it is you need, take the highway south.

There are some other factors in having a good December or any month while in business in Bainbridge. There are two of major significance—Wal-Mart and the Internet.

If you are in business, and you wonder where the shoppers are congregating, check out the Wal-Mart parking lot on any given day and almost any given time. Or check out the billions of dollars now being spent shopping on the Internet. It’s astounding!

Those of us in local business need to put on our thinking caps to counter the offensives against us. 2011 needs to be a challenging year, so next December, if The Post-Searchlight asks that question again, we must register a much higher percentage of those hoping to shop at home.

There were some indications of how things were going in November, when a small group of stores held a Holiday Open House the week before the downtown merchants. Our open house was less than spectacular, not as vigorous as in past years. The next Sunday, Holiday Open House downtown was reportedly received very well. Merchants reported a good Sunday.

I am pleased that they reported good sales. Because if you have been downtown lately on the square, empty store fronts abound. Almost two whole sides of the square are empty.

Thursday night, the merchants promoted Christmas on the Square, open until 7 p.m. for late shopping. Crowds were sparse, and yes, it was raining, which dampened the event. But what was really disturbing was that more stores were closed than open.

There were six stores open for business on the square. Two of them were restaurants.

On Water Street, which really looks great now that the sidewalk project is complete, three stores were open, one of which was a restaurant.

As one who had a business on the square for eight years, customers always gave us the excuse that they never shopped downtown because of a parking problem. Yet on any given day, I could look out upon the square and see a multitude of empty parking spaces.

The “parking problem” was finely ingrained in the perception of the community. What customers were saying, was that if they could not park directly in front of the store to which they were going, there was a parking problem.

Yet you can go to the Wal-Mart parking lot or Home Depot, and see customers undeterred by having to park hundreds of feet from the building, actually having to walk, yes walk, mind you, a considerable distance, to reach the front door.

We have to convince shoppers that local merchants have the ability to give devoted customer service, to be able to get merchandise that customers demand through special orders, to deliver a fair and competitive price, and provide a parking spot that’s a heck of a lot closer than at the biggies. Most of us do just that.

We have to convince merchants too that if there is going to be a shopping promotion, they need to be part of it, to be sure your store is open when the promotion says it will be open. Never allow shoppers to perceive there is little sense heading for local stores if there is no guarantee they will be open.

Downtown, for example, during the past five years, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in refurbishing the sidewalks, street lamps and other physical improvements to make our downtown extremely attractive. This year too, there are new holiday decorations to add to its attractiveness.

If you have missed the completed Water Street renovations, take a drive or a stroll to see it. It looks great.

Yet, there remains too many empty store fronts downtown, and in other parts of the city that must be addressed.

To be a vital city we must have a vital and attractive downtown. We need less unemployment, and more back-to-work jobs.

To lure shoppers to our stores, anywhere in town, most importantly, we have to have full shopping experiences.

Let’s get to work on it. Make it a new year’s resolution of a partnership between government, chamber of commerce, private agencies, merchants and landlords.

Highest priority. Let’s get business moving toward full stores. No vacant storefronts anywhere. Keep those highways going south for the truckers.

We will all benefit.