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South End stores put ‘Shop Local’ incentive on hiatus

Posted by Christina Jedra  February 28, 2013 02:17 PM

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Nicole Vale, a member of the board of directors at the South End Business Alliance, checks on merchandise at baby boutique Coco Baby on Washington Street.

Photo by Olga Khvan

For a few months beginning in last July, balloons and fliers went up, some South End store owners offered discounts and gift certificates and others treated customers with tea and cookies in a “Shop Local” effort.

Seven months later, the “Shop Local” effort at independently-owned stores in the South End has fizzled. A “Shop Local” night, intended to be held the last Wednesday of every month, has not happened so far in the new year. Plus, the date for the next one remains unknown, leaving some local shop owners uncertain over whether the program will continue. But those behind the effort say that the pause gives them time to rethink strategy and improve the initiative in the near future. Their goal remains the same: Boost the local economy.
 
“This year we’re taking a little break because we want to revamp it and make it cleaner, more consistent, more of a brand,” said Nicole Vale, a member of the board of directors at the South End Business Alliance. “We’ve got to pull together a strategy for the remainder of 2013.”

Vale, the owner of Coco Baby, a boutique selling baby and toddler products on Washington Street, and other business association members worked with Washington Gateway Main Street, a business development and neighborhood improvement organization, to organize the “Shop Local” nights.

“Empty shopfronts don’t make for a nice place to live and don’t make for a safe neighborhood,” said Vale. “The goal in mind was to reach out to the neighbors, to have them think about what their patronage does to our local economy. It supports businesses and it supports the community.”

Although she didn’t notice a significant change in foot traffic during last year’s “Shop Local” nights, Indigo Mathews, manager of Polka Dog Bakery on Shawmut Avenue, felt positive about the initiative.

“I wouldn’t say it was a boost per se, but it also wasn’t a total loss either. We were super enthusiastic about it because we already have locals and regulars that come here every day to get their dog treats,” she said. 

 “Shop Local” nights also aimed to bring outsiders, not just the area’s residents, into the South End stores.

“When there are events in the city — the [Boston] Marathon, for instance — everybody gets a pouring in of business, but if on a Saturday you’re just walking around and don’t have anywhere to go, we’d want you to come to the South End and shop here,” said Mathews. “The way that people go to the North End, let’s say, and poke around and try stuff. We’re trying to build that here.”

While many local business owners supported the idea behind last year’s “Shop Local” nights, some were less enthusiastic about its execution.

“The main intent was to give people a reason to come out to shop and have them find you, discover you and come back to you and boost everybody’s business a bit,” said Martha Field, owner of Gracie Finn, a gift store on Union Park Street. “I thought it was great that they were making an effort and I was willing to participate in it, but I don’t think it was successful.”

For one, Field found it difficult to offer discounts — something that was not required, but nevertheless done by some stores.

“The lure is markdown items. The people that are not manufacturers end up having to give discounts when we can least afford to give discounts,” she said. “We’re not in business to give discounts. I don’t want to have to keep using this as an attraction to come out and shop.”

Additionally, Field felt that promotion was sparse among both store owners and customers.

“If there was a promotion with participating retailers and restaurants, it would make a difference,” she said. “It has to be a real organized effort with community support to it.”

Vale, in her effort to revamp the initiative, agrees that it requires more collaboration. She shared the possibility of renaming the initiative to “Think Local” to include support not only for retail, but other businesses in the area as well, including restaurants. She hopes to hire a marketing professional to run an advertising campaign and get the program back up and running within a few months.

Meanwhile, some South End shop owners seem keen on encouraging shopping locally even while an official program remains on hiatus.

“Nothing’s limiting me from putting up a sign in the window and announcing that we’re having a sale. I think there’s something to be said for strength in numbers, but it doesn’t all have to happen on one special night,” said Mathews. “It’s just as much on me as it is on a community organization.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service

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