What does retail mean in 2019, 2020 and beyond?

This is not just a philosophical discussion. If you look up the phrase “small town charm” or “vibrant community” you will find they are rooted in a strong retail core, whether in a downtown or mall.

If we are boldly going into a future where customers are becoming increasing comfortable with online purchases, what does this mean for the model of a successful town that’s been in place since towns started to form?

We see the retail shakeout on the state, regional and national level. Notable retailers like Sears and Macy’s are undergoing significant reductions.

Locally, we see it with vacant storefronts. A decent portion of “business openings” of late have been businesses moving from one location to another. Businesses move for a variety of reasons, including because they outgrew the previous spot.

But a relocation creates a vacancy in one location just as it fills a vacancy in another.

The list of things people are willing to buy online has grown. When online purchasing started there was the disclaimer there will always be things people want to “try on … sample … touch” before they purchase.

It turns out people are willing to buy things online with the notion of returning them via the mail if they are not what expected.

If we assume we cannot turn back the clock on the advent of the internet or convince people it is not a good idea to enjoy the comfort and convenience of purchasing from home, the question is what do downtowns look like? What is it they can provide that people cannot obtain online?

This is not just about the ability to buy a pair of socks locally, it will impact every aspect of our community life. Local businesses provide the funding base for many community endeavors, whether that’s sponsoring your kids T-ball team or donating items for auctions for charitable causes. Business owners and their employees also tend to be a key part of the volunteer base for much of what we enjoy in the community but could never afford to pay people to provide.

It is impossible to overstate what the retail/business community means to our quality of life and community we love.

It is in your self-interest to make purchases locally, but sometimes that argument falls flat when offered a 50 percent discount online.

In the cause of full disclosure, your local newspaper is not an uninterested bystander. Newspapers are dependent on advertising by local retailers.

The approach to this problem has to be different than the approach many small towns took against big box retailers. It is possible to successfully stop a huge store from building in your town. But when the foe (namely Amazon) already is in most every home in your community that tactic does not work.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s e-commerce report issued in May, e-commerce sales in the first quarter of 2019 accounted for 10.2 percent of total sales in the U.S. According to a chart with that report, e-commerce sales accounted for about 3 percent of total sales in 2009. The total has climbed at a steady rate. It is folly to predict the future, but the chart definitely has the upward arch look.

If you look at what has worked locally over the past five to 10 years, it’s been “experience” based businesses — restaurants, bars and even museums. What also seems to be working downtown is housing — apartments in either new buildings or restored structures.

By this fall, Ellensburg will have a downtown hotel. It is possible, if not probable, that we are heading to a future where there will be more people in the downtown core, whether living or visiting.

More people typically means more business, but what kind of businesses will these people want?

If we made list of things we worry too much about and things we don’t worry enough about, this one probably falls under the latter list.

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