Communities in the Chippewa Valley are in the midst of many exciting changes that are likely to make a great place to live even greater. Both Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls have been involved in redevelopment efforts that are changing the look and feel of their downtown environments and are creating buzz and excitement among downtown businesses and the consumers who frequent them.
“The vibe of being downtown is great fun,” says Colleen Weber, owner of The Smiling Moose Deli in Eau Claire. “Being in on the early stages of anything new brings some visibility through the media outlets. Staying current and growing as the community in downtown grows is continually challenging. Location matters; overhead matters. Have a solid business plan, and don’t believe that just because your business is located in a redeveloping area, it will automatically thrive. Success takes planning, hard work and focus.”
There will be challenges
Of course, being on the front edge of new development doesn’t come without some challenges. One of the challenges of being part of a revitalization, says Weber, is that ultimately the location you’re in may or may not be the best spot for your business.
“The site we picked is very visible in downtown, on a busy street intersection. This decision to place ourselves in a very visible, new development in the downtown was critical,” she says. “Strategically being near the hub of Phoenix Park was not an accident. The built-in programming helped us survive our first two years.”
Chippewa Falls is also experiencing change and growth, says Teri Ouimette, executive director of Chippewa Falls Main Street, Inc. She says the city has added new businesses to the multi-generational businesses that continue to thrive. That combination of old and new has led to a bustling downtown that averages 8,000 vehicles a day.
“Our downtown is multi-use,” she points out. In addition to more than 40 retail shops and restaurants, Chippewa’s downtown also boasts numerous lawyers, eye doctors, dentists, insurance companies, physical therapists and more.
Events, says Ouimette, have been a great way to bring people to the downtown area where they are exposed to the various business and community options available. “We host events to promote and feature our downtown businesses, such as Paint the Town Pink, which was a recipient of the Wisconsin Main Street Award, Paint the Town Red, Paint the Town Christmas, Bridge to Wonderland Parade, Pure Water Days Parade.”
These events are just one way that local businesses can gain exposure. As consumers’ attention has shifted back to downtown, businesses are seeing opportunities. Revitalization can take time, though, as the early entrants to a downtown retail environment know. To remain successful, while a downtown is undergoing change and working hard to attract consumers, can take a lot of work and creativity.
Communities have certainly benefited from a ‘buy local’ movement that emphasizes the value of supporting local community businesses over the big box stores. Both are important, of course, and as savvy small business owners have found, there are definitely ways to compete with the big guys.
The Brown Barn, which opened in November 2014, is one of these businesses. Founder Chris Untiedt is excited to be coming in during the early stages of Chippewa’s revitalization, and said the store’s first year was very successful. “We find that the people of Chippewa Falls take pride in their town, and they have been wonderful about bringing visitors into the store,” she said.
To help raise awareness, Untiedt has used social media, particularly Facebook. Brown Barn also has an account with flok.com, a customer loyalty and engagement platform for local businesses. “We find the Main Street and Chamber of Commerce organizations to be wonderful advocates for our business and very helpful in providing events and reasons for people to shop the downtown and try to participate in the local offerings as much as possible,” she said.
It’s not always easy, Untiedt admits, especially in the midst of construction, which is a must-do in any revitalization effort. “From time to time, we’ve had slumps or challenges, including the tear-down of neighboring buildings and natural visitor flow,” she says.
“That is to be expected, and by keeping our eyes on the future, our enthusiasm has helped us weather through.” During those times, they have offered sales and other incentives to give customers a reason to venture through “traffic cones or construction dust. We want to keep the store a fun place to visit by changing things up regularly.”
Staying top of mind
Importantly, small businesses — or any business, for that matter — need to ensure that they are staying top of mind with the markets they serve, or wish to serve. That can mean anything from traditional advertising to the use of new media tools (e.g. social media, online marketing) to participation in sponsored events — all to ensure that their business’ name is out there multiple times in multiple places. It is that ongoing communication across multiple channels that can best raise awareness and drive traffic to a store, restaurant or other business.
The Smiling Moose Deli has used a number of marketing efforts to stay top of mind. “We will continue to support local groups through donations and sponsorships to continually build our name and reputation,” says Weber. “We will continue to watch our marketing dollars and controllables to get us through as more competition comes into the space. Ideally, as competition is added, we believe more people will come along as well.”
Mike Schatz, economic development director with the City of Eau Claire, offers the following tips for businesses to generate awareness and drive traffic to their downtown businesses:
- Stay open regular hours.
- Have good signage.
- Have inviting window displays.
- Partner with business neighbors in co-marketing efforts.
- Be patient and have a positive attitude.
- Participate in downtown special events and business districts.
And, for those in Eau Claire: “Join DECI to take advantage of marketing discounts and universal marketing of downtown.”
Getting customers to the store, of course, is just the starting point; it’s the moment of truth that will not only determine whether a customer will return, but also whether customers will speak positively about their experience to others. Word-of-mouth is the coin of the realm for most businesses, and their success can be boosted or bombed if the customer service experience, and the product or service itself, doesn’t live up to expectations.