Turn That Frown Upside Down, North Street!

Preface: I sincerely hope that this will be read in the spirit of affectionate support and constructive criticism it is intended.

Myself and others have been hearing a certain amount of complaints lately from some North Street businesses. Obviously, the Streetscape construction has been part of that for a while. Probably none of us really had a total inkling how disruptive it would all be. But most recently, though, some of us are hearing a certain theme being rhapsodized about in the wake of the first of the year’s 3rd Thursday- that this street fair has somehow become less about supporting downtown businesses and is now more of a ‘carnival’ type attraction.

Ok, well, here’s my thing on that. While I have prettymuch tirelessly supported downtown and local business in general, I’m actually getting a little exasperated with some of the talk I’ve been hearing. I just want to really again emphasize up front, that I have been a huge cheerleader for them, particularly within the past year, going on and on to anyone who will listen from on the air of Good Morning Pittsfield appearances to off the record at City Hall- relentlessly preaching how we all need to support them, how difficult the construction has been for them, the need to speed up figuring out a better parking plan and other development projects – on and on until I must sound like a broken record.

However, there’s a few things that I think businesses need to keep in mind- as they are, and always will be, the largest deciding factor in whether they succeed or not.

A)I don’t think 3rd Thursday was ever intended to be entirely for their benefit, it’s for the whole community. It was originally thought up by the department of Cultural Development for Pittsfield, not the Department of Make Money for North Street Businesses. The latter is more the purview of Downtown Inc, which is the side of it they may want to more direct their energies, and perhaps in the form of helping and becoming more involved rather than just complaining.

B) In all honesty, from my perspective beating up and down the Upstreet strip, some of you could really be trying harder.. If there’s a change in who’s benefitting from the event, it could be that it’s shifting in favor of those who are making a greater effort, which seems in a lot of cases to now be the other vendors and the many nonprofits who aren’t based on North Street, but rent space to promote their orgs, causes and products. Meanwhile a lot of these stores, who don’t have to pay for anything because they’re already there, are just not putting their best foot forward. There was an awful lot of empty sidewalk space in front of their stores this past Thursday, why weren’t they making more of it? One (but not the only) notable exception is Wild Sage. Look at that model. Put some merch out! Get out in front of your store, have an attraction of your own, tie it in with your business. Show me how you work it!

C) Let’s not blow with the wind. For some, when they personally are having a good run, there’s all this glowing magnanimous praise- when they’re not, it’s BITCH-BITCH-BITCH. I hear a lot of them talk about how bad the construction has been, but then I’m like, yes, ok, where’s your marketing for your business?? Some of these places have never paid for an ad in their entire existence. These are tough times on a national level, and you have to be innovative and creative and work really, really hard to make it in business. Budgeting for marketing is a big part of that- always has been, always will be. If you need pointers on selling your spot, talk to Jess Lamb at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge, that girl knows how to shake her publicity engine!

D)It’s not the City of Pittsfield’s job to make money for merchants in a certain area –again, that’s more what umbrella organizations like Downtown Inc or Visitor’s Bureau/1Berkshire are supposed to do, and if they’re unhappy with their representation there they should become more vocal and shake things up within those structures. Why rant to others with less ability to help? Sure, there are some of us who have made it clear we care deeply about this city and will put in tons of our own time and effort into championing everyone else’s issues, perhaps even to the detriment of our own stuff (are we becoming suckers, I sometimes wonder?) … but that doesn’t mean we are the best outlet for these grievances.

E. Some of the sour faces and negative attitudes I have encountered entering downtown establishments, and in their external communications too (i.e. kvetching on Facebook= bad for biz) are simply not helping. I really think SOME North Street merchants could really benefit from a few lessons in simple SMILING. They, and their employees are the ultimate core marketing for their business, and frankly some would do well to remember that (or realize it for the first time!). Some of them are just too cranky. I can think of an example of one establishment in particular in the last couple of years, who constantly berated everyone on Facebook for not coming to events at his store, apparently unaware that that very behavior was making people not want to go there as much, consciously or unconsciously. I myself was one of the faithful, and even I stopped turning up as much in part because I was sick of being made to feel guilty about every other time I didn’t. People are turned off by the negative, and repelled by failure- so we really need to tell these merchants that even if things aren’t going so well, maybe don’t shout it from the rooftops that you’re failing! C’mon people, a little POSITIVE SPIN for #$&@’s sake!!

F. Again, marketing!! Did the bookstore ever run an ad, the whole time it was in business?? Apologies if so but I never saw one. The old adage is true, you have to spend money to make money! You can’t just build it and have them come. Longtime downtown businesses like Steven Valenti’s and Aerus Electrolux seem to understand advertising and reaching target demographics- why can’t more of them? And talking about marketing brings us back to the question of trying harder at 3rd Thursday. Simple logic should dictate that most people aren’t going to buy a lot of merchandise that night, it’s not the sort of event you really want to be lugging around a lot of bags at while you’re trying to eat an ice cream cone and keep track of your kid in a crowd, and enjoy some performances. SOOO, they need to really make an impression, so people come back and buy later. Catch their eye, strike their fancy, make them love you! Like women, shoppers need to be endlessly courted and romanced, not just on the first date. Get out in front of this thing, get out in the streets and start sweet-talking and smooth-operating!

G. If everyone was doing poorly, one could blame it more on a systemic problem. But the simple fact is that’s not the case. There’s a few people that are making money hand over hand, so one can’t blame all of one’s failures on a poor business climate. We seem to have forgotten that historically more than half of all new businesses will not make it, and there’s a lot of factors in all that, but the establishment and how it conducts its business has always and will always be the largest piece of the puzzle.

H. Step back and get some perspective. Frankly, for businesses on Tyler Street or Elm Street or West Housatonic or Allendale, the reaction to some of what is being said by North Street vendors is “WHO THE #$%@ do these people think they are, the Chosen Ones?” Ok, so the construction has been rough, and there’s a massive issue of parking infrastructure, but my god, I shudder to think how stores in other parts of the city must feel, where massive coordinated efforts and media campaigns and city projects aren’t bending over backward to help them! They just have to make it in business on their own, the old fashioned way of marketing and attracting customers to their establishment and then giving them good value for their buck and excellent customer service.

I. Ok, so nothing’s perfect, and of course there’ve been missteps and a learning curve in the last few years of redeveloping Pittsfield. There’s no cover-all guide book to urban renewal and nobody has all the right answers. But please, please, I implore you- try to think back to previous times. There are more people and organizations making efforts to support local business than I can remember at any point in the last 30 years. As a longtime Pittsfield resident who moved away in ’02 and moved back in ’08, maybe it’s easier for me to see the contrast… but it’s a huge one.

I. That said, you know I love you all, right? That’s not hyperbole. I have always and will always believe in and support independent businesses in Pittsfield, on any street they may happen to be. Since the days when I used to blow my allowance at the Landing Zone, or my very first pay checks at Sip of Seattle and Either/Or Bookstore, what’s mine shall be yours, to a large extent. If you have a project you need help with or an event you want to promote, my door is always open (figuratively speaking, that is- probably easier to call or email than show up at my door). Like the Pretenders said, I’ll stand by you. Take me in, into your darkest hour… won’t let nobody hurt you… even yourselves, if I can help it.

6 thoughts on “Turn That Frown Upside Down, North Street!

  1. Jo, while I appreciate your input and a lot of what you say is true, there are certain things maybe you don’t understand. such as advertising takes money and they don’t wait until you reap the benefits of said advertising to expect payment. Many of us advertise everywhere we can afford to while making donations to just about EVERY non-profit. a LOT more parking in Allendale and even on Elm. MUCH lower rents as well! I have participated in 3rd Thursdays since it’s inception, spent plenty on advertising, donated, donated, donated, catered in just about every area of Berkshire County (for 20 years) and when someone asks where we are I ask if they know where Baba Loiues is and they say yes! when they have been there for maybe almost 2 years? We have been in our location for EIGHT! Ok so part of that would probably be because I have changed my business name too many times but the other part is he has WAY more money to spend on advertising. Also Steven Valenti & Electrolux have been in business a LONG time and I am guessing don’t have too many business loans left if any – makes a HUGE difference.
    I LOVE being Downtown but it IS frustrating about the parking – maybe the construction guys and the police directing traffic should not park on the street all day and take up ALL of the 3 hour parking in McKay Street parking lot – (what about carpooling?)

  2. Brenda, as I said, I am sympathetic to those things, that’s why I mentioned the issues such as parking. Obviously if you’re spending money on marketing and throwing your shoulder into it, you’re not one of the businesses I’m referring to not advertising.
    I’m not saying every bad thing that happens is the fault of North Street businesses. I’m saying there are some who could be trying harder, and that it is inappropriate to blame 3rd Thursday for a lack of successful business. Of course having more starting capital makes it easier- this is part of the overall message I’m trying to convey- that there are many factors that effect whether a business succeeds or fails. These are simply some of them. There are many of us who are receptive to helping with others as they are brought up- and obviously you are one of the ones who is doing your part to raise these issues and be heard, which I applaud.

  3. thank you and I admire you for speaking your mind – because that is something I never shy away from! I am horrified to see so many people saying that the brawl on Thursday would make that the last one for them – that’s terrible! when the city has worked so hard for our 3rd Thursdays. have I ever met you?

  4. Probably- I’m quite handsome, it would be hard to miss me.
    JK… actually I like to skulk in the background so it’s quite possible you’ve never noticed me.

  5. Having done retail for a decade 1990-2000, I know how hard it is and how awful it can be to spend hours in a store without any traffic coming through the front door. Close for five minutes to relive yourself and that one customer shows up and bitches you are “never open.”

    Joe, I loved the points you made, painful as they are. Next to being able to predict what the public wants, finding the right combination of advertising and promotion is indeed key.

    Some inexperienced retailers sink all their retirement money into their venture and then sit back and wait for people to find them.

    New restaurants open all the time with people who never even worked in one before, they put out generic food service products and wonder where the customers are.

    Doing retail is not only tough, there is competition everywhere. I can’t imagine any business owner being so blind they can’t see the advantage of foot traffic on Third Thursdays, and for other events that put downtown Pittsfield in the spotlight. The events bring out the local people, and it is up to the merchants themselves to turn it into cash.

    Just imagine how tough it would be downtown without all this constant activity.

  6. You make a great point that walking around enjoying the entertainment makes carrying packages difficult. So, one would think that simple marketing strategies such as having some of the store’s wares on display on the sidewalk and sales presence handing out a dated coupon for 10 or 15% off on Saturday would help drive traffic back to the shop two days after 3rd Thursday.

    That being said, I also feel that if the City wishes to continue driving so many people to downtown then they need to assure that there is absolutely no trouble. This would include trouble making kids who feel the world owes them everything, e.g. panhandlers, skaters, bikers, loud-mouth rowdies who go up and down the street shouting obscenities and who try to instigate fights. Since kids no longer respect authority, perhaps a night or two in lock-up for disorderly would help.

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