[This is the first of two articles about how to help local merchants to support ideas for change that they might otherwise oppose. Read part two here.]
The role that streets play in everyday life needs to change. Humans are social animals and streets are our biggest communal assets. And yet our streets still reflect an outdated 20th century philosophy as places for passing through.
But we’re starting to turn the corner. From parklets to block parties, open streets events, and pedestrianization, streets’ historical role as social spaces is being rediscovered. And people don’t want to gather in some dark alley or enclosed former parking lot. They want to go where the action is.
And most of the time that’s where the shops are…
But then there’s the merchants. Thinking about a street event or a permanent change such as a protected bike lane or a pedestrianized street? You’ll need to talk to the merchants. And getting them on board can be tough.
Angie Petitt-Taylor, a friend and co-organizer of mine here in San Francisco, has a lot to say about working with merchants. She’s been organizing community events since 2002, starting with Antiques in the Park and, more recently, Sunset Mercantile in 2014. Both events have featured a strong commercial element but other elements too, such as food trucks, beer gardens, and entertainment. Now Angie and I are collaborating on a regular street community flea market and merchants are very much on our mind.
Nobody I know understands merchants better and more bends over backwards to work with them than Angie. Anyone pushing for change that would affect merchants should heed her advice. She and I caught up recently to talk more about working with merchants for positive change. Angie’s background is in events, which provided the context for our conversation, but most of her points apply to any kinds of projects that might affect merchants.
Adam: When someone brings a proposal to a merchant – say a street event or a streetscape project – what perspective is a merchant likely coming from?
Angie: Merchants are often apprehensive and tend to be suspicious if something involves closing off streets. It’s hard to run a business, there’s lots of components to manage, and it’s challenging to bring people into your store. It’s all stressful. If things change around the business it’s hard for the owner. They’ve figured out how things work, they’ve gotten into a rhythm, and change is difficult. I’m a small business owner [an antiques store] and have personally experienced this, so I empathize with their struggles.
Adam: Is there a difference in how older and newer businesses respond to ideas for change?
Angie: Yes, there’s often a difference between older and younger business owners. The younger owners usually aren’t as fearful of change and tend to embrace new ideas and think about them in different ways. The idea that businesses don’t have to compete with each other and can in fact collaborate is a newer approach. More established businesses are more likely to come from the older competitive dog-eat-dog approach. They need more guidance, more visits and conversations to see things differently.
Adam: What’s the best way to work with merchants so that they’re open to new ideas?
Angie: A merchant’s starting point is how something will affect their business, so you have to start with talking about the potentially positive effects on business. Think of the red flags that will come up in merchants’ minds and address those concerns immediately. Talk about the positive effects on the community too, this does impact merchants’ thoughts. With nervous merchants you may need to make repeat visits to continue the conversation and discuss ways of addressing their concerns.
Adam: What’s the best response for merchants who are skeptical about an idea?
Angie: I try never to disagree with what merchants say. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and nobody can tell you how to feel. Instead, you can assure them that their concerns are legitimate and to help them fully think through your proposal. For instance, if traffic flow outside their business were decreased could other positive effects counter that?
With skeptical merchants, I try harder to bring them in and get them involved. A past project made the mistake of missing out a couple of merchants, making them feel like outsiders. These days, we keep meeting and talking with merchants, finding new ways to get them involved, giving them a sense of ownership over a project.
Adam: Merchants often feel threatened by street events that they perceive as potentially competing with their business. What can event organizers do about this?
Angie: The solution is to help merchants be a part of and benefit from events. We wouldn’t run an event if we thought it would be harmful to local businesses. For our antiques events, local antiques stores were concerned about loss of business so we allowed those stores to advertise at our events. Many of our events feature food trucks, which local residents love but merchants often fear losing business to. So we try to attach local restaurants’ names to the event. The restaurants see the effort we’re putting in to doing this and they don’t feel as threatened.
To get local merchants more involved we’ve developed a program for our events called supportships. Supportships are a way to get small businesses involved with an event. The most important element of the program isn’t getting money from the businesses (although we do charge a fee), it’s winning their support. We express our gratitude for their support by adding their logos to our promotional materials (posters, postcards, flyers, our website, social media, and events).
The supportships are a low-cost way for merchants to get involved. In addition to the $200 or $150 fee (for new and returning participants, respectively) to join the program, merchants can help out by promoting the event, sharing ideas, and so on. For businesses that are really nervous about an event and its potential financial impact we might offer a complimentary supportship for the first event or so.
In addition, some of our events feature a “Merchant Hop”. For a low fee, participating merchants offer something special on the day of the event, such as a discount, special menu item, or workshop. Those merchants are featured on a paper and online map that the public can use to tour the area from business to business. Again, this helps merchants feel included on the day of the event. The Hops have been really successful.
Adam: How much work is it to do all this?
Angie: I put a lot of time and effort into cultivating relationships with merchants. Outreach is crucial for an event. Eventually, merchants know what we’re offering them at every event and they come to trust us. They see that this isn’t just someone trying to put on an event but it’s a whole community coming together to make it happen. If the community really wants something, most businesses don’t want to be the party pooper and get in the way.
Thank you to Angie for her insights. Merchants often get a bad rap as roadblocks to positive change. Angie brings a needed dose of empathy to the discussion. We could always do with more of that!
In a follow-up article, we’ll sit down with another local organizer Madeleine Savit whose experience with merchant outreach complements Angie’s in some interesting ways. Their wisdom combined, Madeleine and Angie reveal a whole lot about how merchants really can be part and even drivers of positive change.