The self-quarantine, social distancing, and cancelations forced upon us by COVID-19 got me thinking about home. Pop culture has recently been preaching that home is wherever your loved ones are (think Edward Sharpe and Zombieland 2 haha) and there is truth to this idea. But in general, people, by nature, want to settle down. We have an innate need to feel connected to a community situated in a physical location that we love.
Home and community are inseparable, which is why being forced to leave it due to job transfer or loss is often a traumatic experience. Our strong attachments to the place where we were raised or choose to live as an adult affect our world view. We believe that our town has the best food or character or offers the most rewarding childhood experiences. These notions serve as our benchmarks for judging other places.
Last week, Phillip wrote about late-stage retail and the yawning inequality evident within the retail landscape. A recurring theme has emerged where luxury malls are on the rise, while the stores that serve the middle classes are shuttering. These trends have had a devastating effect on the people who love their towns. And in the age of coronaviruses, empty storefronts aren’t just an eyesore; they’re reminders that for many places, local retail isn’t enough to support small communities.
Much is being said about how the coronavirus is forcing people to work from home, but let’s face it, working remotely was already on the rise (I’ve been working remotely for the better part of five years). Co-working spaces began popping up during the 2008 recession and the trend only intensified as the economy recovered. People have started to opt-out of expensive cities and their inflated housing costs. Like me, they moved to the outer reaches of metropolitan centers and put down their roots in smaller communities.
So what’s the connection between home, remote workspaces, COVID-19, and retail? Since people have moved further from their workplaces and are now working from home instead of commuting, they’re going to spend more time in their local community. As a result, there’s more opportunity and an increased need to invest in these communities. If you are a brand that casts the vision of healthy communities and the net-positive impact of your business, then now is the best possible time to find new opportunities to both grow and make a difference.
Let’s all use this period of self-isolation to consider how we can build stronger communities supported by thoughtful retail brands.
Whenever I walk through Enumclaw’s downtown I see opportunities everywhere for smart DTC brands, such as Tracksmith, Filson, or Sunday, to thrive. As a farming community in King County at the edge of the Mt. Rainier National Forest, we have a strong outdoor and fitness culture, even among our many retirees. And as a gateway to a range of outdoor activities, people from all over the Seattle area come here. High foot traffic is pretty much a guarantee. Imagine if brands like Tracksmith or Allbirds supported and organized running activities. Or Sunday (Lawn Care) sponsored our weekly summer farmer’s market? Why not invest in communities that already see a high level of civic participation and investment among its residents?
The goals of the thoughtful DTC brands and people who care about their communities are intrinsically aligned. DTC brands want to find people who are passionate about their wares, and local residents want retail that speaks to their specific values and enhances the investments they’re already making in their local municipality, whether that’s raising money to refurbish a park, build a running trail, or renovate the historical district.
So how can D2C brands and small towns come together to bring these values-based brands and their products into physical retail spaces, and help to enhance the ecosystem of small-town retail?
The first step is for brands to identify towns like Enumclaw, that have a natural affinity to their sector. I found this article from the EPA to be a good source of information on the topic, offering resources to identify such towns and case studies of cities that leveraged local assets to rebuild their communities. Other sources include books like Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James M. Fallows and Deborah Fallows, which examines 21 cities and towns that are actively investing in their communities and seeking retail and industry partnerships.
Small towns like Enumclaw have indicators which will vary by industry, but often include features like a thriving food and beverage scene, obvious natural beauty, a clearly defined downtown, activity-driven traffic, and residents who display pride for where they live.
Brands seeking to expand their footprints can work with Chambers of Commerce to identify immediate opportunities to leverage. They may be small initiatives at first, such as doing a pop-up or partnering with a local boutique or store. Many cities and towns have local economic development commissions that help match outside entrepreneurs to local retail opportunities and offer incentives, such as low-interest loans or rent compensation to brands that open storefronts in their downtowns.
Brands have always considered urban areas the best place to open stores and establish a presence, but now is the time to rethink that assumption. Smaller towns and cities are filled with committed citizens who are eager to buy innovative stuff, and the barriers to entry are lower. And that’s just it - it’s not just about altruism. There is a real opportunity for mutually beneficial partnerships between brand and town.
I love the concept of Neighborhood Goods, but beyond reinventing the department store I also think there is an opportunity for smaller, scrappier efforts which could include partnering with existing retailers, splitting space, working with complementary businesses, or even just providing clear channels of communication and messaging for engagement of these towns and their businesses. If this sounds expensive to scale - consider your CAC through other channels right now.
A Return to Local Pride
Enumclaw used to be known for its butter, and our creameries could command premium prices thanks to their impeccable reputation for quality. Drive the byways of America and you’ll see the cities and towns named for the things they once produced -- Gloversville, NY, Glassport, PA, Iron City, TN, Lime Ridge, PA, Nitro, WV, Oil Dale, CA among others. Every one of these towns was proud of what they produced and were devastated when globalization sent their jobs overseas chasing lower labor costs.
But things are changing. Today’s consumers are keen to support local, artisanal brands, like Askinosie chocolate out of Springfield, Missouri, which now enjoys a national reputation (a phenomenon that Phillip celebrates in his article, The Honor System). From Shinola watches made in Detroit, to Burt’s Bees, which started as a tiny candle business in Maine, 63% of consumers are eager to support small brands that share their values, Accenture reports.
And if there’s one thing that consumers value, it’s brands that create jobs in their local communities. So beyond just partnering from a retail perspective, I think there’s a huge long-term opportunity for brands to lay down roots in these smaller towns and cities. They may pay higher labor costs, but they’ll make products that create cult-like followings.
Cult-like followings often result in organic sharing, cultivating promoters, and word-of-mouth recommendations which garner more substantial attention and a natural development of secondary markets. Think of it as a small-town, free, marketing influencer that exists outside of social media.
We will emerge from the shadow of COVID-19 at some point, so now is the time to take stock of how to build a business, and how to support more communities as they strive to recover and grow. Use this slowdown as an opportunity to consider which communities make sense for you to invest in and then do it. I know my town is right for some of you; I fell in love with it over the past years, and I know you can too!
Just look at it:
How could anyone resist Enumclaw, a town of almost 12,000 people in King County, Washington, outside of Seattle? I’m hardly alone in the adoration of my town; just about everybody I know is grateful to live here. Enumclaw is beautiful. It’s also an access point to some of the world’s best outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, and backpacking. Mt. Rainier (the tallest volcano in the continental US!) towers over us as a natural, constant reminder that this world is bigger than just us. But one of Enumclaw's best characteristics is the powerful sense of community among its residents.
All photos credit: Elizabeth Lange