[This is the second part of two articles about how to help local merchants to support ideas for change that they might otherwise oppose. Read part one here.]
I once asked one of the founders of Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall if the merchants had put up any resistance during the conversation about pedestrianizing Pearl Street. “Kind of”, he said. “One merchant simply told me: If this destroys my business, I will kill you.”
That guy got off lucky. The Pearl Street Mall continues to be a big hit today and the merchants love it. But the reality remains: If you want to make radical positive change in cities, your biggest opponents will be the merchants.
It’s easy to demonize merchants for this. But previously on The Plaza Perspective, organizer Angie Petitt-Taylor added a dose of empathy, explaining the fear many merchants feel when confronted with new ideas and how to include merchants in projects that they otherwise might oppose.
Angie deals in the realm of short term street events. But what about asking merchants to embrace long term changes, like the Pearl Street Mall, to our streets? That really ups the ante. To answer that question, I got in touch with another San Francisco-based organizer, Madeleine Savit.
Madeleine has put untold hours into working with merchants on long term street changes. When San Francisco proposed pedestrian and bicycle upgrades along the Polk Street commercial corridor a few years ago, many merchants freaked out, claiming that the loss of parking would harm business and threatening to derail the upgrade project. In response, Madeleine established Folks For Polk and poured her time into developing relationships with the merchants and helping them to see how the changes would benefit business. Over months and countless visits, she learned how to bring merchants around to an idea.
Interestingly, Madeleine and Angie have quite different approaches, with key similarities, to merchant outreach as you’ll see from our conversation below. Their insights combined are a treasure trove for anyone trying to help merchants to support positive change.
Adam: What’s your philosophy behind working with merchants to gain their support for a project?
Madeleine: It’s primarily about establishing a relationship with merchants. You want to be a familiar face to them, to earn their trust. Then they’re more open to your ideas.
Adam: So how do you start to develop that relationship?
Madeleine: Don’t discuss the project’s specifics on your first visit. At this stage it’s about relationship-building. Begin with creating a conversation and developing a relationship. Say what group you’re with, then start with a broad premise for your visit. You might want to say, if true, that another merchant recommended them as someone to talk to. If your initial idea is, say, to potentially pedestrianize a street you could talk about wanting to honor and enhance the street’s culture, vibrancy, legacy, and so on. But leave the specific idea (in this case, the pedestrian street) for another time.
Then ask the merchant what are the issues on their street. Position the merchant as the expert, stroke their ego! Let them talk and ask questions based on what they’ve said. Ask what might address the issues they mentioned. This conversation will help you empathize with them and refine your idea and see how well it might be received.
Adam: How do you start talking details?
On subsequent visits gradually introduce your idea, addressing points that merchants have discussed previously. But start vague, don’t get into details unless merchants ask for them. And try not to get too deep into the nitty-gritty; merchants need to buy into the basic concept first. Anticipate objections and have a response prepared, a solution: “What if we ____?” You can cite data but don’t use Europe as an example, use the US. Merchants often fear gentrification and rising rents but remember that gentrification happens even without improvements. At the end of the day, more foot traffic is always good for business.
Ultimately, give the merchant hope… “A lot of people are really excited about this idea”, “Things are changing, how can we adapt?”
[Note: One of the more complex elements of Madeleine’s advice is about discussing your idea with a merchant once you have a relationship. Madeleine isn’t talking about deceiving merchants by hiding your idea until you’ve sweet-talked them. She’s saying that your idea should integrate what the merchants care about so that it’s well-received and works for everybody. And of course merchants are more likely to listen to you if they know and trust you. This is the art of diplomacy and tact.]
Adam: What do you do about skeptical merchants?
Madeleine: Don’t waste your time on the No people; if they’re against an idea don’t try to argue them into changing their mind. It won’t happen. The Yes businesses are easy, it’s the undecided or wary merchants that take time. Unite the Yes merchants then bring in the Undecideds. The latter group are more comfortable expressing their support once they see all the Yes folks on board. It can take many visits and slow, patient work to bring Undecideds over.
Adam: Once you have a number of supportive merchants, what’s the next step?
Madeleine: You want to nurture supporters’ excitement. Visit them periodically with updates and good news. And you’ll want to create a tribe of like minds. Find a place, such as a particular merchant’s store, to bring merchant supporters together regularly. When merchants feel part of a community they’ll more proudly stand up and vocally support a project.
Make sure the merchants that support the idea get involved. Give them things to do. It’s wonderful if they assist with outreach to other businesses, since merchants often have the most legitimacy with other merchants. Supporters can also offer their store as a meeting place, put up a poster for the project, and so on.
Getting merchants to embrace challenging ideas can take a lot of time and repeated conversations. Make sure you have a good team behind you to help. There’s no guarantee of a perfect outcome, of course. On the Polk Street project, Madeleine spent months trying to convince the merchants to support the idea. The final project still got watered down significantly after city officials caved in to objections. However, Madeleine believes the results were much better than what they would have been without her outreach.
And remember, great ideas are always a win-win for merchants, residents, and visitors.