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Series message: David can beat Goliath

If you think you're shopping habits don't really matter, that buying items online instead of locally doesn't have an impact, think again.

Local stores depend heavily on support from local residents, and every time you decide to order something online from Amazon or shop out of town, it hurts their bottom line. It hurts their ability to pay their workers, keep or add jobs and contribute to the overall economic vitality of the place we call home.

But it's not all gloom and doom either. There are success stories — local retailers who are adjusting to the times and small-town communities that are not just surviving but thriving.

That's the bottom-line lessons that can be gleaned from our three-part series, "Bricks and Clicks," that wrapped up in today's issue.

The series should shatter some myths people have about small towns, online shopping and what the future holds for local retail markets.

First off, small-town retail may be changing, but it's very much alive.

West Central Initiative, an organization that works to strengthen the economy in nine west-central Minnesota counties, has been delivering that message at webinars exploring the future of retail. Among its data: Online sales are less than 10 percent of total retail sales; small retail is growing twice as fast as big retail; and our region's small retailers are actually in a better position to thrive than before e-commerce.

With millions in retail sales at stake, local retailers have to be more nimble at adjusting to change than ever before. Local residents have to realize just how important it is to keep local dollars in the community, where they can turn over and over again.

Change is difficult, but doing business the same as it has been done for eons isn't the answer. In our series, Tara Bitzan, executive director of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that she's had conversations with owners of stores that have seen growth and those that have lost customers. "The differences in the businesses are often the ones who have adapted to the new environment or have reinvented themselves," she said. "You have to be willing to grow and evolve to stay relevant."

To be successful, businesses should be listening to their customers and be willing to try new things, such as adjusting their hours so they're open when it's convenient for people to shop and not relying so heavily on peak summer months.

Retailers should also be focusing on the biggest edge they have over online shopping: Providing a level of personalized service shoppers can't get through a computer.

Deb Brown of SaveYour.Town, a group that helps West Central Initiative deliver webinars, says more consumers are seeking customer service. "People want to be treated special. They want to have an experience. They want to know they are valued," Brown said. "They don't want the same old thing."

Retailers shouldn't have to face future challenges on their own. Local governments have a big stake in it and must lend a hand through community events, beautifying downtowns and finding ways to create a better business climate. Fortunately, this has been happening in our lakes-region communities.

Businesses should work together — locally and regionally — on marketing and promotional campaigns that not only draw more people into their communities but also show the benefits of buying locally.

In our series, Jed Brazier, executive director of the Wadena Chamber of Commerce, provided good advice for local retailers who are the "Davids" competing against the "Goliaths" of the Internet. It comes down to providing friendly, personalized service.

"You will never outbuy Amazon," Brazier said, "but you can pivot and lean into those things that you can do that they cannot, which is those conversations, that customer service, that goes so far into bringing people back into the door."

Bricks and Clicks, a Forum Lakes Group Series, was printed in our Nov. 23, Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 issues and is available online: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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