LAKE FOREST/LAKE BLUFF — Central business districts like those along the North Shore can thrive in the age of Amazon with innovation and partnerships playing a key role.
A consultant to people and organizations affiliated with downtown commercial areas told more than 40 members of the Lake Forest Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce how to draw customers in the face of competition from online retailers March 14 at the Lake Forest Club.
Bridget Lane, a director of Business-Districts, Inc., a company which works with governments and trade associations to help build stronger downtowns, said retailers, property owners and government all play a crucial role in navigating the changing shopping landscape.
Lane said people shop and then they buy. If the shopping takes place on the internet, she said it is important to make sure the buying is local using a variety of tools including a well constructed website and a social media presence.
“We all have to deal with the Amazon behemoth,” said Lane. “Once people find something online you need to bring them to you.”
Everyone involved must adjust to the change in the way people shop, according to Lane. She said places that sell food whether they are grocery stores or restaurants will continue to do well. Food stores which offer customers grab and go food and a place to eat it are expanding their traditional roles. Some have full kitchens. She calls it the “groceraunt” concept.
More traditional retailers can build their business by developing a strong online presence both with a website and using social media. Lane said utilizing programs like Google Maps are crucial to bringing a customer to a merchant after the person finds a product through the website. She said 820,000 people live within a 45-minute drive from downtown Lake Forest.
“You want to be the one who sells it and sell them additional items,” said Lane. “When someone does a Google search they need to be able to find you.”
The more businesses in the core commercial district of a community that have a social media presence the more they will help each other, Lane said. Creating chatter about products gets customers communicating with each other.
“That way you get one on one conversations between customers telling each other about their experiences,” said Lane.
Stores are also getting smaller. Lane said there are now shops which offer customers service necessary to sell made to order clothing and other specialized items. Customers enter, get the service they need but do not walk out of the store with their items. They order on the website right in establishment with the assistance of the sales associate if they wish.
More retailers are going to a store within a store concept. Lane said that is nothing new. Bookstores began putting in coffee shops with both food and beverage service years ago. Now there are more partnerships.
With merchants using smaller spaces, Lane said property owners need to make adjustments as well. Lane said a 10-year lease used to be the norm but now three years is becoming more common. She said a property owner should not be afraid of renting short term to a startup business or seasonal shop.
“You should not be afraid of one year,” Lane said. “Think about seasonal businesses or pop up shops. Use the AirBNB concept for a storefront. If you do a shorter lease get them to pay the rent up front.”
Government also plays a role assuring a central business district maintains its vibrancy, according to Lane. Some of the help may come in the form of assuring sufficient parking and easy access to the stores for people on foot. Larger projects often need help of local government.