One glance at the business section of any daily newspaper is enough to know that individuals and families are not the only ones mired by the current economic downturn.
Existing businesses, big and small, are shuttering their windows or merging for their lives; new businesses are struggling to find enough capital to get off the ground.
Nowhere is this trend more worrisome than in small towns and communities that are defined by, and depend on, their local business communities.
Sections of Philadelphia based on “downtown” communities such as Chestnut Hill, Manayunk and Germantown have encountered this problem like most other small towns, and each have devised ways to tackle the problem head-on, believing that a solution lies in creativity, determination, and never saying “die.”
While the harsh winter left most people repeatedly digging out their cars, it also left many Manayunk merchants digging out their businesses from winter’s forced freeze on foot-traffic.
“It was a quiet season,” said Jane Lipton, Executive Director of Manayunk Development Corporation (MDC), “I wouldn’t say it was devastating but outdoor shopping didn’t fare as well as merchants had hoped.
Manayunk is a destination in Philadelphia that sees a steady influx of visitors in the warmer months. Manayunk hosts several events from March through October, including a bike race, an arts festival and a pet parade. It’s during these months that the businesses see a steady influx of customers walking through their doors.
“We capitalize on the nice months,” said Lipton.
But it’s not only the cold weather that keeps people away. The convenience of being just a few clicks away from Christmas gifts is very attractive, especially at a time when cell phones are surpassing computers as a means of internet access.
“There’s been a change in the way people shop,” said Lipton, referring to online sales as an added pressure of the tough economic climate.
Web design was a topic at the most recent “State of Manayunk” meeting, hosted monthly by MDC for its 100 members. Lipton says that about half of the businesses in Manayunk have some form of an online presence, although very few actually sell their wares online. Lipton encourages them to do so, and tries to bolster their visibility by having the individual merchant sites linked to the Manayunk website, Manayunk.com, to which nearly 7,500 people are subscribed, receiving email blasts about news in Manayunk.
“We give our members a portal from our page to their website,” said Lipton.
One merchant included on this site is Stephen Falvo’s Art + Science, a salon and spa located on Main Street. Falvo says that while he is selling about three percent less in products, he has noticed a trend in his clients’ spending habits. He says that rather than buying an eight ounce bottle of shampoo, customers are going for the 32 ounce bottle, which saves them money in the long run.
As a salon, Falvo said that his clients are pretty consistent, coming in every few weeks to maintain their locks. In addition to hair, the spa side of the operation has seen a bump in recent weeks. Falvo said a lot of clients are coming in for massages.
“Maybe people are depressed about their money,” Falvo said in jest.
Just down the street is Bruce Cooper’s long-standing Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar. The restaurant expanded about three years ago, adding the Jake’s side of the operation. Cooper says that the more casual Jake’s has driven more business.
The restaurant owner attributes this bump to the fact that going out to eat is not necessarily a large expense for people, who often opt to spend their money on experiences, rather than things, when times get tight.
Cooper tried advertising in local publications but didn’t find it worth the price. Instead, he created a website and a Facebook page and sends out promotions at least twice a month via email blasts to the nearly 1,000 email addresses signed up through his website. This has led to a dramatic increase in both customers and people seeking employment, and has even carried business through inclement weather.
During a large snowstorm last December, Cooper posted on Facebook that the restaurant had braved the storm and was open for business. About 20 patrons came through the door on a day when most other restaurants saw very little patronage.
“I can generate interest by doing it myself,” Cooper said confidently.
Lipton shares that confidence and is excited about what the future holds. The promotional nature of the MDC is constantly brainstorming new events and ideas designed to keep Manayunk thriving. Facade improvement projects are in development, including a partnership with the Mural Arts Program. Though it’s still in the planning stages, Lipton says it will be on view by June.
“I’m really excited about what we have in the works,” Lipton said. “2011-2012 is poised to be an amazing year.”