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Compete with online shopping? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Area businesses and organizations took part in the annual Chili Cook-Off in downtown Wadena in September. The chili taste testing gets people downtown along retail businesses and leaves them full of chili. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal1 / 2
Crowds check out the Crazy Day deals at Weber's Wadena Hardware Aug. 3, 2018. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal2 / 2

Some organizations in the Wadena community are hoping to lend a hand to retail businesses in their efforts to compete with online shopping.

What that may look like can be something as simple as guiding a business owner on using social media to promote their business. It can also be something as advanced as custom analytics of customer shopping trends.

Wadena Chamber of Commerce executive director Jed Brazier said social media training was planned as the first part of what he hopes will be quarterly business training for members of the Wadena Chamber of Commerce.

If a business owner is not comfortable or doesn't have the time to be online, Brazier suggests that businesses should identify an employee who is tech savvy enough to fill that need.

While he thinks using social media is a great tool to bring into a business, he adds that he has been impressed with the friendly conversations he enjoys while visiting a local business.

Brazier said he is constantly talking to people in his office and in businesses promoting the community offerings, but he plans to do more online promoting of local businesses—because if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

"We'd like to help our members increase their outreach," he said.

Brazier said online shopping appears to have a small effect because most businesses in town are not niche businesses. They have things that people need to buy on a regular basis.

"Yes, I can buy eggs online," Brazier said. "I don't want to. I want to get in my car, drive five blocks, get my eggs and go home and make some eggs."

Brazier used Best Buy as an example as a business that changed its business model in order to avoid being "Amazon's showroom." They restructured, they invested in customer service and trained their people to better serve the customer.

"If you can't pivot or choose not to, that's a choice they make," Brazier said. "Going out of business is not a choice but choosing to continue to run a business in a failing way is."

The Wadena Development Authority is another organization that promotes businesses and has been busy working to bring new businesses into town.

One initiative they are involved in is working with the Buxton Group. This is an initiative to pay a group that looks at customer analytics to see how shoppers spend their money in the community and to reveal who is shopping at a given store.

In doing so, it's said this group can identify items that current retailers could be selling in their store and suggest new businesses that may do well in the community.

Businesses have to invest in this program and results are not instantaneous. But the hope is that it could help the community find more of what they want and need locally. Prospective businesses are being identified, according to the WDA executive director Dean Uselman.

Small town shopping campaigns are another important initiative that seems to boost Wadena's brick and mortar stores for at least a few days of the year. Those include the Crazy Day deals, Small Town Saturday shopping and other shop local campaigns that have been pushed in recent years. Those opportunities showcase what a business has to offer to shoppers that may have had no reason to shop there before.

"I'd like to think they are effective," Uselman said of some of the shop local campaigns that have taken place. "But I hope at minimum it's raising awareness to people that it's OK to buy some things online, especially if you can't find it locally.

"If I can't buy it locally, before I travel out of town, I will check online, but it's usually a last resort.

He mentioned businesses like Weber's Wadena Hardware, who also have an online presence through the Do-it-Best company.

Brazier said the Chamber puts on several events every year to get people into the businesses.

"It's to help raise visibility for local businesses," Brazier said. If food is involved, like chili, Easter candy or the like, all the better.

Into the future

Big campaigns and more meetings are ways to help grow business, but one thing that's hard to beat is the growth of foot traffic coming from new or expanding businesses. That is sure to be changing soon in Wadena's retail sector.

While retail has changed in Wadena from what it was 30 years ago, some big moves in Wadena's future could bring a resurgence. The announcement of Super One Foods returning to the south side of the railroad tracks, a brewery now under construction, a bakery soon to reopen and the hope of a new gas station are a handful of changes that all offer increased foot traffic for much of the retail sector.

As one succeeds, those around them should benefit as well.