As part of a statewide effort to mitigate the impact of 13 Shopko store closures in Wyoming, a national retail expert presented an informational webinar on June 6 to at least 75 interested parties across Wyoming.
The vice president of revitalization programs for the National Main Street Center, Matt Wagner, gave the presentation, in which he offered his conclusions and recommendations based on data he has gathered over the last few months.
More than 100 people watched the presentation, and many communities organized watch parties so larger groups could take in the information and discuss what they learned after the event.
That webinar can be accessed here, or feel free to check out the slideshow separately here.
Wagner’s work in Wyoming began last April when he first visited the Big Horn Basin area. He visited at the request of the Wyoming Business Council’s northwest regional director, Amy Quick – in partnership with a slew of other local economic developers – as the rural region faced the significant economic impact of four Shopko closures. Wagner toured, held focus groups and created an online survey on the impact of Shopko’s departure from the area.
While Wagner's work focused on the Big Horn Basin region as a case study, the project can be easily replicated to help inform any Wyoming town that faces the loss of Shopko or another major retailer, Quick said in the presentation.
“This is just the beginning of what we hope becomes a long-term focus on building a strong entrepreneurial foundation and vibrant, vital communities where people want to live, visit and run businesses," Quick said.
She added: “Throughout this project, we have heard a lot of optimism, innovative thinking and great ideas, and a concentrated focus on opportunity rather than challenges.”
Wagner’s conclusions were based on national as well as local economic trends and opportunities. He applauded the fact that his survey received 507 community responses.
Some of Wagner’s main recommendations included:
· Focus on growth from within. At this point in the retail environment, it is highly unlikely that a large retailer will move a brick-and-mortar store into a small town. Companies like Walmart and large department stores need a higher population density than small towns provide. Wagner said he was impressed many of the Wyoming towns he visited were focused on that strategy, rather than trying to recruit in another store to replace Shopko.
· When looking to expand product categories, retailers should pick the right ones based on national shopping trends. For example, the apparel category is largely moving online, unless retailers offer a thrift-type shop or a specialty boutique. On the other hand, the lawn-and-garden category is one of the fastest-growing retail markets, and shoppers tend to stay local for those products.
· Store hours and days of operation are key, and it takes a community-wide effort to make the shift. One store deciding to stay open later or on the weekends won’t have the same impact as an entire downtown that does so.
· Encourage creative retail solutions and entrepreneurs. Try pop-up shops to test the market, or mobile retail out of a van. Develop makerspaces and incubators for retailers.
“There’s lots of things that can be done to start to create more of an entrepreneurial environment and start to shift where we’re putting some of our resources so that in the long run, we have much more sustainable development, we’re less susceptible to some of these trends, and we’re frankly much more agile to shift when consumer preferences shift,” Wagner said.
The next step in this case study will be creating a document or toolbox that summarizes the project and guides other small towns that are reacting to significant retail closures, Quick said.
“Following this webinar, we will be putting together a kind of best-practices style manual that will cover what we did throughout the project,” Quick said. “The Wyoming Business Council has regional directors throughout the state available to help implement similar strategies, as does the SBDC.”
Lisa Herrera, the CEO of the Green River Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, listened to the presentation.
“It was really helpful,” she said. “We’ll be looking at offering some training opportunities for our business community using that material.”
Specifically, she said she found it interesting that the apparel category is moving online so heavily.
“Now I can tell my shop owners who are looking at expanding their product lines to maybe consider categories other than apparel,” she said.
Partners in the Big Horn Basin Pilot Project:
Wyoming Business Council — Amy Quick
Wyoming Small Business Development Center — Bruce Morse
POWELL — Christine Bekes, Powell Economic Partnership
GREYBULL — Paul Thur, Greybull Economic Development
WORLAND — LeAnn Baker, Washakie Development Association
THERMOPOLIS — Amanda Moeller, Thermopolis - Hot Springs Economic Development Company