The future of small-town main streets still relies heavily on the “shop local” movement. Take the thriving centers of Wellesley or Concord, for instance. But other towns are struggling to sustain a thriving downtown.
Walk into any store in Downtown Needham and you’ll probably see a stack of flyers that read "S.O.S.," or "Save our Shops." That’s because a number of locally owned stores that used to thrive here have closed their doors.
“People's buying habits have changed," said Nancy Wright, who owned and operated Perennial Designs here in the center of town for 19 years. "The way people think about buying has certainly impacted all the small retail stores.”
Wright sold custom silk floral arrangements and other decorative home goods but was forced to close last month.
“A lot of my customers, even those who were very loyal over the many years we were open, indicated to me they were purchasing many of their home accessories and floral designs online,” she said.
Going online to websites such as Wayfair and One Kings Lane takes less effort than shopping by foot. And the products are cheaper, in some cases, than the handmade items Nancy produced for Perennial Designs. Some believe that convenience factor has led to much less foot traffic in the downtown area, although Needham still manages to draw folks to several of its very popular restaurants like Sweet Basil and Not Your Average Joe's.
“Needham’s known for the food," said Benny Tang, a Babson College undergrad who worked with a team of students to analyze downtown Needham. "There’s a lot of really great restaurants there. And no one’s really capitalizing on that foot traffic unless it’s the weekend.”
The students looked at demographic and retail data and conducted interviews around town, trying to figure out why people chose local malls rather than Needham for their shopping. One of their conclusions? People perceive a parking problem.
“People, when they come to town, they only see really the street parking," Tang said. "Whereas in reality, there are a lot of these side allies that lead to parking spaces behind buildings. But it’s not really clearly labeled where all these parking spaces are.”
In addition to adding more signage about parking, Tang says Needham should entice visitors with free Wi-Fi signal throughout the town, and plenty of places to sit outside and work.
“For example, Starbucks provides free Wi-Fi," Tang said. "People go to Starbucks and spend a lot of time there. So if you look at Needham’s town center, it’s actually a really beautiful park, and it’s a place where we can envision people spending more time just hanging around. It’s been done in the town of Amherst and it’s quite successfully launched.”
The Babson students were so helpful that the town has asked for their insight for another semester. Town Economic Development Director Devra Bailin says they’re working on Wi-Fi, and adding more parking. They’re also making an effort to diversify the shops.
“One of the things that we did do was change our laws with respect to retail sale of alcohol," Bailin said. "The council of economic advisors wanted a wine shop and we have one.”
Bailin says the overall growth and health of a community is dependent on having a thriving downtown with retail.
“When you spend a dollar in Needham, in a locally owned independent business, 73 cents stays in community," she said. "If it’s just a store that happen to be in Needham that’s part of a chain, only about 40 cents in community. And obviously if you spend it outside the community, nothing happens.”
And Nancy Wright says that even though she’s closed her business, she’ll continue to shop downtown. Right now there are four empty storefronts in Needham, and a fair amount of turnover. Wright points out that most retail shops are replaced with salons, banks and exercise studios.
“A lot of the businesses in town that have turned over have turned into more service types of business," Wright said. "There’s fewer retail brick-and-mortar stores. And it’s disappointing because I love going into a store and seeing what’s there and touching things.”
Wright hopes others will be encouraged to keep what shops are left in business.