Merchants and Special Events

Tips for the Holiday Season

For many retailers, the sound of this year’s holiday season may be less “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and more “No! No! No!,” as in no customers, no revenue, and no end in sight.

Many indicators foretell that this is going to be a tough retail season for small merchants. But, as a Main Street professional, you are in an ideal position to help your downtown business owners and show them the true value of Main Street in the process. 

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Special events, such as a Holiday Treelighting, can bring hundreds, sometimes thousands of potential customers to downtown businesses. 

One of the best ways for downtowns to stay competitive during the upcoming shopping season is to host special events:  they’re a great way for Main Street businesses to find new customers and generate extra revenue while spending almost nothing to do so.

There’s just one problem, though -- merchants who can best be described as “Business Prevention Experts” (BPEs). 

For savvy business owners, well-planned and well-executed special events are a smart and cost-effective way for them to get “more through the door” when there are plenty of “feet on the street.”  Unfortunately, however, in almost every downtown across the country, there seems to be no shortage of BPEs -- business owners who always say they want more customers but who close during your special events and don’t make a single sale. These BPEs then typically get angry at you for “making” them close, all the while ignoring the hundreds or even thousands of potential customers you brought to their closed doors at no cost to them.

But don’t despair. Here are a few tips ways to work with your downtown merchants (including the BPEs) so that they can tie in to your holiday events, make some sales and see the benefit of working with your Main Street program on other events.

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In districts with lots of great restaurants, events that center around food can be very successful and help other Main Street businesses.

Tip #1:  Determine your event. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it?  Certainly, it doesn’t take an advanced degree to come up with ideas for special programs, but developing successful events -- ones that bring lots of people to your downtown and into your businesses – does require some critical thinking and observation on your part.  Assess the mix of businesses you have in your downtown, see if they might have some common theme, then develop an event that will attract their interest. Here in downtown Vineland, we have a number of great restaurants, so many of our events tend to center on food.  Similarly, and not by any kind of design, we have a high concentration of wedding-related businesses. Developing some kind of bridal show or event is idea we’ve been working on and we’re expecting it to be successful once we come up with the right kind of model that makes sense for everyone involved.  .       

Tip #2:  Separate “good” BPEs from “bad” BPEs.  Once you’ve determined your special event, the next step is to get your downtown businesses involved. Don’t waste your time and energy, however, with a scatter-shot approach that aims to help every business whether they want it or not. Here’s where your powers of observation come into play again. Not all BPEs want to be BPEs. Some of them really want to be better business people (these are called “good” BPEs), but they just don’t know or don’t have the time to devote to it. The key is to figure out who those people are, then separate them from business owners who wear their BPE title as a status symbol (these are the “bad” BPEs).    

Tip #3:  Help your “good” BPEs.  After you’ve analyzed your downtown and identified your “good” BPEs, concentrate the efforts of your Main Street program on helping these willing merchants tie in to the event. If you’re just beginning to work with merchants on special events, start small and work with only a few at a time so that you can really devote the time and resources necessary to ensure their success. What does this help look like?

It really depends on the kinds of events you’re doing, but you might want to try some of the following: offer to design and print day-of-event coupons, bounce-back coupons, or fliers announcing a sale or in-store special; suggest inexpensive ways to beautify the store during the event (by using balloons, flowers and such); offer to set up cross-promotions with other downtown businesses; help them develop ideas for in-store contests; and offer to create and send an email newsletter for them, or help them create and send their own. The list is really limitless, but the key is to it as easy as possible for your merchants to participate in your special event.  Next year in Vineland, we’ll begin sending teams of volunteers from all four of our committees to our “good” BPEs so that these business owners can get almost any kind of assistance they need.

Tip #4:  Stay in touch.  Remember to keep in contact with the “good” BPEs that you’ve decided to help tie in to your event. If it’s a one-day event, check with them throughout the day to see how they are doing and adjust the game plan if necessary. If it’s a multi-day event, talk with them each day and find out what’s working, what’s not and, again, adjust the game plan accordingly.  In either case, always conduct a post-event meeting so that you can talk about how your event went and discuss ways to improve it.  At the very least, this will get your business owners talking about special events and thinking – on their own! – about ways they can do better. It is so important that you demonstrate to your downtown business owners that you and your Main Street program really are partners in their success. Staying in touch with them, holding their hand and walking them through it will show that better than anything else.

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Encourage your merchants to help plan special events. They can design events that best meet their needs and will have a real stake in their success.

Tip #5:  Encourage your “good” BPEs to help plan other events. By helping to plan events, business owners have a unique opportunity to organize them in ways that best meet their needs. When merchants are part of the planning process, they have a real stake in its success and will be far more inclined to put some effort into tying their business into the event. Tell your merchants when the Promotion or Events Committee meets and encourage them to get involved.  If many business owners can’t make your meetings, provide them with a copy of the minutes so they know what’s going on.     

Holding successful downtown events that your merchants embrace is not always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult.  I make presentations on this topic to Main Streets fairly frequently and believe me when I tell you that, whatever challenges you face -- closed stores during specials events, merchants angry because you’re closing the street, complaints that special events hurt business, or any number of other frustrating issues – you are not alone.  These issues are everywhere.       

But with some hard work and creativity on your part, and with the cooperation of a handful of “good” Business Prevention Experts, you can get your merchants to view special events as a cost-effective way to grow their business rather than an inconvenience. 

For more holiday tips, visit our Holiday Magic on Main Street page, which will be updated throughout the season.