There is no magic solution for struggling retailers in downtown Lawrence, but there may be some steps worth trying.
In discussing the impending closure of The Bay Leaf, a longtime downtown draw, owner Geri Riekhof decried the negative impact that Internet commerce has on local brick-and-mortar businesses. It may be hard to attack that issue directly, but Riekhof also raised another concern that would be easier for downtown merchants to address.
She said that downtown businesses needed to do a better job of working together. Specifically, she noted the lack of agreement among retailers on keeping their stores open into the evening hours to help compete with retailers in other parts of the city. Riekhof said she would have liked to keep The Bay Leaf open later throughout the year but was especially disappointed at the unwillingness of downtown merchants to extend their hours during the holiday season.
Casual observation, along with a quick check of downtown retailers on LJWorld.com’s Marketplace listings, reveals a hodgepodge of business hours for downtown retailers. Some never stay open beyond 5:30 p.m., while others are open until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. most nights. Some stores are open later on weekends, and some follow the long-standing Lawrence tradition of staying open until 8 or 8:30 only on Thursday nights.
All of the stores surely have a rationale for the hours they keep. They at least think they know when customers will and won’t patronize their businesses. They’ve looked at the costs of keeping their stores open and created what seems like a reasonable plan for their individual business.
What hasn’t been tried in a long time, however, is a coordinated, prolonged effort to establish what Riekhof called a “critical mass” of downtown stores that are open during standardized evening hours. At one time, downtown Lawrence businesses at least coordinated and advertised extended hours during the Christmas shopping season, but that effort also has fallen by the wayside.
The only way to see whether evening hours would have a significant benefit for downtown retail businesses is for most stores to commit to extended hours for an extended period — maybe a year — to allow downtown visitors to become familiar with the new hours and make their plans accordingly. It’s easy to imagine that people who come downtown to eat or participate in other entertainment events might also take a few minutes to browse or buy in a retail store. It might even work the other way around if people knew that most downtown stores would be open during evening hours.
Coordination also is an issue in other areas that affect downtown. Downtown Lawrence Inc. is in a good position to help coordinate a variety of marketing and entertainment efforts but it can only do that if its membership represents a broad spectrum — that “critical mass” — of downtown businesses who are willing to work together to promote the district as a whole.
The individuality of the locally owned businesses in downtown Lawrence certainly is part of their charm, but the survival of some of those businesses, and the downtown retail scene, might depend on their ability to work together on hours, events, marketing and other issues.