I must not be only one whose heart sinks when we see those pictures of rundown towns that where once thriving centre of community spirit and commerce. Those places where people would proudly frequent on the weekends because they felt a part of the ecosystem, community and future. Well fortunately this is not happening in my little town. There’s something happening here which has been much bigger than its residence, council or shopkeepers could have ever orchestrated.
As many people of my generation (X) experienced, it was normal for our families to pull up their roots to find new prosperity, often relocating overseas or other states. My parents moved from the UK to the US and I moved to Australia. In fact most of my high school friends have found a new place to call home. This was certainly the pattern in this town. The population base were aging as a younger generation was moving away. Although over the last decade and half this has started to change with a paradigm shift taking place effecting the core of the community. A multitude of elements have contributed to this such as desirability of location for younger families, accessibility to the city, growing real estate prices and schools. But one fundamental change in this community, probably never planned, was how the residents have taken control of the way people shop locally. Now, councils being councils, they can provide some conservative direction, organise events and foster generic community bonding, but in this case it was members of the community, including the retailers themselves that have made the most considerable impact on local commerce.
With one of Australia’s largest and busiest shopping districts nearby (7 minutes’ drive) it was always going to be a David and Goliath struggle, so the locals knew they had to change the perception of what retail meant here. Fortunately the major supermarkets were here which certainly was a draw card, but what could the local retailers offer alongside them that the shopping centre up the road couldn’t do much better and cheaper. Certainly they had better facilities, more variety, larger displays and cyclical sales that would make these small format stores seem merely quaint, expensive and understocked, if not boring?
What the larger retailers didn’t factor in was that the soul of retail still resides in the little town retailer. In fact it never disappeared in this town, just in hibernation awaiting David’s tiny stone to tip the balance altering the perception of its residents. What residents started to appreciate was that people in the shops live here, their kids go to the school here and they immerse themselves into their business, product, listening and speaking to their customers and wider community. This town’s people started taking control, opening up a local market at the school, holding evening shopping events and in what has become a master stroke, promoting the town via a very cool and active Facebook page championed by a proud (private) resident. There’s even a store that hand makes tea towels, which I might add continually sell out, comically aligning the town with Paris London and New York.
Now this town is no Walden. It has its own set of challenges, bureaucracy, overinflated rents and parking constraints and it’s also not fair to compare this experience to many of the country towns that have been devastated due to unforeseen circumstances. Although what is worth applauding here is despite many challenges initiatives were often uncoordinated coming together to create what can only be described as a wildfire of pride and community spirit. This has certainly altered the tide for local retail that’s being swallowed up by big business. In fact it’s interesting to point out that prior to this emotional reboot residents and retailers were overcome by the pending doom of the local commerce, were focused primarily on price, generating negative sentiment and ultimately a lack of dedication, care and belonging.
What you now see is a community that hasn’t got time to listen to any of that, where everyone is too busy doing their own little bit, unawares of how they are transforming the way others think about their collective contributions to the town. Whether it’s getting their hair cut, doing the dry cleaning, buying a small gift, handmade cards or just sitting in the plaza for lunch or a coffee. Even buying a book, yes a book, amazingly there are still bookstores (2 of them) located here.
Residents appreciate that the town doesn’t offer everything and value is important, but speaking to others many will be trying to do as much Christmas shopping locally as they can, because the new mantra is that we’re all part of the ecosystem that makes a difference to the people of this town. Maybe it’s a lesson learned from our country neighbours that communities want to buy locally and make a difference, they sometimes just get a little lost on that path or waylaid by the bigger more noisy businesses overshadowing that message. Without even knowing it the local retailers provide customer relationship experiences that the majors could only dream of and given the opportunity would pay a king’s ransom for. Anyone can technically sell stuff but what is often overshadowed by price and variety is the intrinsic value of the product and transaction. This is the X factor that differentiates the local retailer. What’s the old saying, people like to buy from people they like.
This little town has certainly been a positive story at overcoming adversity in the retail world. Subliminally the residents have made the transformation by following the path of those that have place intrinsic value into what it means to buy locally, from those that appreciate what it means to trade locally.
My little town is Lane Cove in NSW and we are proud to say it’s where we experience life and also shop. There’s a play on words here that’s deeper in meaning than what its quirky catch phrase denotes “What happens in the Cove stays in The Cove”