Marketing Main Street: Merchant coalitions say everybody wins when shoppers support small businesses

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Visitors walk among the cars lined up along Broad Street during the MainStreet Cruise-In earlier this year in Cleveland, Tenn. The cruise-in is held on the fourth Saturday of each month, April through October, to draw visitors into Cleveland's downtown district.
photo Staff photo by Tim Barber / Tina Harrison, owner of North Shore gift shop blue skies, updates her display of jewelry before last year's Small Business Saturday.

Tina Harrison says she's been planning since July for the kickoff to the holiday season.

"As a specialty gift store, the fourth-quarter holidays are critical for blue skies, so we start planning for them in the middle of the summer," she says.

Besides the decorating and special events she'll do for her own small business on Chattanooga's North Shore, Harrison will take part in promotions sponsored by the NorthShore Merchants Collective, which has been representing businesses in the district for more than a decade. Like other such cooperatives, it is designed to offer members strength in numbers to improve the economic health of their community while strengthening their own bottom line.

"We recognized the need to organize back in 2006 in order to present a unified voice and to pool our energy and resources for the good of the 'hood," Harrison says.

The North Shore association's 58 small, local businesses will kick off the season Nov. 22-24 with a Holiday Open House, then try to fuel the festive energy for another six weeks with a Holiday Window Treasure Hunt that lasts through the first of the year.

"Each of our member businesses hosts holiday-centric activities or offers promotions" during the open-house weekend, Harrison says, and the merchants group "coordinates some additional activity, such as wandering carolers, throughout the neighborhood."

The extra activity isn't just for adding ambiance. For retailers, it's a chance to translate increased traffic into sales. Industry analysts say many small retailers rely significantly on the business they bring in in the final three months of the year to boost their revenue and profits.

This year's fourth quarter arrived with some foreboding. The Trump administration's tariffs are raising prices on clothing, linens and tableware, which could curb sales on goods that are normally big sellers during the holidays. Additionally, online competition remains fierce, pushing brick-and-mortar stores to promote experiential shopping and convenience as the better alternative to shopping on screens.

The National Retail Federation predicts holiday retail sales during November and December will increase nationwide between 3.8% and 4.2% over 2018 to a total of between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion. The numbers, which exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, are slightly higher than the average holiday sales increase of 3.7 percent over the previous five years.

"The U.S. economy is continuing to grow and consumer spending is still the primary engine behind that growth," says Matthew Say, president of the National Retail Federation. "Nonetheless, there has clearly been a slowdown brought on by considerable uncertainty around issues including trade, interest rates, global risk factors and political rhetoric."

Say and local merchants say consumers are generally still optimistic about the economy, especially with unemployment in metropolitan Chattanooga remaining below the U.S. average.

One catalyst lifting small businesses nationally has been Small Business Saturday, founded in 2010 by American Express. The day is celebrated each year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as a reminder to consumers to also "Shop Small" after the Black Friday juggernaut that traditionally starts the holiday shopping season for larger retailers.

Though it does not reflect actual receipts, a survey of spending habits by American Express concludes that consumers have spent an estimated $103 billion on Small Business Saturday over the past nine years.

Sharon Marr, executive director of MainStreet Cleveland, says Small Business Saturday is the soft opening for the holiday season for the 175 businesses and organizations the nonprofit serves. The group ramps up the small-town charm the following weekend with A Classic Christmas in Cleveland, which includes a parade, caroling and community tree lighting.

"Retail has really flourished in the last couple of years [in Cleveland]. It's probably the best retail mix we've had in a long time," Marr says, citing a jeweler, specialty pet store and candle maker among the new businesses, part of a larger group of 30 retailers and 15 restaurants in the downtown district.

photo Staff photo by Tim Barber / Rachel Marshall is executive director of MainStreet Dayton.

Twenty-five miles west, Rachel Marshall says MainStreet Dayton offers similar services to its members. Both organizations are part of the National Main Street Center, which works to revitalize older and historic commercial districts to build vibrant neighborhoods and thriving economies.

MainStreet Dayton began in 2006, says Marshall, who was hired in 2015 as executive director. Before MainStreet, she says, there was the Dayton Merchants Association, which started an old-fashioned Christmas parade over 20 years ago, "not even as a fundraiser, just as a fun thing to do at Christmastime."

The horse-and-carriage parade remains on the calendar, but is now part of Christmas at the Courthouse, a larger, all-day event in early December that includes a 5K run, photos with Santa, Critters Pageant and candlelight caroling. It's preceded in mid-November by the Holiday Stroll, which closes several blocks of Market Street, downtown's main thoroughfare, to let visitors explore stores, listen to carolers and watch the lighting of a Christmas tree to begin the season's festivities.

"We try to incorporate as many downtown events as we can to help the merchants gain visibility," Marshall says. "A lot of people who come to the downtown events may not come to anything other than that downtown. But once they're there, they visit the shops, and maybe they'll come back and spend their tax dollars there."

And not just during the Christmas shopping season. November and December may be lucrative, but merchants need year-round shoppers. Year-round events help to sustain interest in their districts.

Marshall says MainStreet Dayton sponsors a Spring Fling similar to the Holiday Stroll, a Farm-to-Table dinner in early fall, PumpkinFest near Halloween and events to coincide with the Tennessee Strawberry Festival in May and Scopes Festival in July.

Likewise, MainStreet Cleveland coordinates a spring Mutt Street, a weekly farmers market, monthly cruise-ins, the Cleveland Apple Festival in October and the Halloween Block Party, among other events.

For the past two years, the NorthShore Merchants Collective has tied in events with the Moon River Music Festival, which relocated from Memphis to Chattanooga's Coolidge Park in September 2018.

Harrison says any and all such activities are good for business as small shops compete with national chains and online retailers.

She credits Small Business Saturday for shining a light on the importance of supporting local merchants - and not just for the sake of the merchants.

"I think it reminds people to support, throughout the year, those small, local businesses that make their community unique, that give it its one-of-a-kind character and differentiate it from every other city in the country."

Save the date

* Nov. 14: MainStreet Dayton’s Holiday Stroll* Nov. 22-24: NorthShore Merchants Collective’s Holiday Open House.* Nov. 22-Jan. 5: North Shore Merchants Collective’s Holiday Window Treasure Hunt* Nov. 30: Small Business Saturday* Dec. 6-8: MainStreet Cleveland’s A Classic Christmas in Cleveland* Dec. 7: MainStreet Dayton’s Christmas at the Courthouse