The sad truth is that downtown Northampton, the college town that doubles as the county seat of leafy Hampshire County in Western Massachusetts, just doesn't hum like it used to. At a glance, the scene appears picturesque and the shops unique. But a closer look reveals dimmed lights and closed doors.
As with many other main streets across the Commonwealth, Northampton is caught between the squeeze of old laws that retailers say raise costs and new technologies that steal customers -- not a pleasant combination.
Aiming to arrest and reverse this trend is Jon Hurst, President of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (RAM). Hurst joined WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay to kay out a game plan.
Hurst says RAM’s website, DarkStoreFrontsMA.com, is intended to highlight the state-wide problem and encourage people to share photos of shuttered businesses in their communities. The idea is to make the abstract problem concrete in the hope of developing thinking that will yield solutions.
- What are the reasons we’re seeing this trend? Small businesses, says Hurst, are challenged by online shoppers and internet technology/advertising. In addition, he says government regulations on small business constitute “imposed forms of discrimination” that make it expensive to operate, employ people, and occupy space. Small businesses endure challenges that are often overlooked, says Hurst. "When a big store or even a big manufacturer or company closes their doors, it's all over the press. You know, when a small store front closes, it may get noticed by the local paper but ultimately, it’s just noticed by the customers and employees that are now put out of work" says Hurst.
- What can the state government do to solve this problem? Hurst says cost is a factor that policy makers need to focus on. Retail stores in Massachusetts incur costs not required in other states and certainly not by online retailers. Hurst says local stores have to collect 6.25 percent sales tax although a majority of the competition, including online sellers, do not collect sales tax. However, Amazon accumulates sales tax due to the fact that they have jobs in the Massachusetts. Another factor are blue laws, says Hurst. "Blue laws started in Massachusetts and will die in Massachusetts", he says. Only two states within the U.S.- Rhode Island and Massachusetts- require retailers to pay time and a half on Sundays, which are big sales days, he says. Online sellers aren't required to pay time and half due to the legislature's recent decision to grant them exemption.
- Are these businesses always going to be at a disadvantage due to the ever evolving retail environment? Hurst says in a recent survey conducted by RAM that 94 percent of their 4,000 members say they have online competitors but only 42 percent actually sell products online. Hurst says small businesses must embrace the future and state government needs to cut small merchants a break.
To hear the full interview with Jon Hurst and WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay, click on the audio file above.