Merchants Brainstorm Ways To Bring More People Into Shops

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Topics: Chatham Merchants Association

Downtown Chatham merchants are brainstorming ways to bring more people into their shops. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – The first in a series of forums designed to open and improve communication lines in the town’s business community was held last Wednesday evening at the community center. Sponsored by the Chatham Merchants Association, the forum focused on three key areas of discussion, including what worked well for businesses during the past summer season, the challenges that exist and ways to address those concerns.

“Sharing is crucial,” said Rebecca Voelkel, president of the Merchants Association. “We are so fortunate to have a creative and driven merchants community here. It’s one of the town’s most valuable assets.”

The freewheeling discussion was not designed to come up with solutions, but to share ideas and possibilities. In the category of what went well this summer, merchants noted that downtown was very busy, with lots of visitors. However, sales in the stores did not keep pace with the number of visitors and several possible reasons were identified. They included reduced foot traffic in town at night, more daytrippers and fewer residents or longer-term visitors making repeat visits.

Those in attendance cited the evening activity in Harwich Port as a contrast. “Harwich Port found its niche,” Sonnie Hall said. “There are so many places to eat outside and then go shopping.”

Brainstorming ways to increase evening foot traffic included such ideas as installing food trucks in the parking lots to expand low-cost food offerings. Scott Hamilton wasn’t sure that would contribute to increased sales, however, noting that “Octoberfest was busy but it didn’t translate into sales.” Music on the street, similar to the Port Nights Music Strolls in Harwich Port, and free movies in the evening were mentioned as additional possibilities.

Of particular interest was generating ideas to bring local residents and second home owners downtown in the summer. Traffic congestion and sufficient parking were discussed. Free parking was lauded, however all agreed that it can be difficult to find parking downtown, even with the proposed new lot on the former Eldredge Garage property at the east end of Main Street. Merchants aired several possible solutions, including entering Main Street from the east end, instead of from the rotary, to ease congestion there.

Discounts for local residents or evenings where a percentage of sales is donated to a local charity were additional ideas to attract locals. Voelkel noted that the merchants are “the first people to step up to the plate” when it comes to supporting charitable activities in town.

Doing a better job of marketing the unique quality of the shops downtown is critical, Voelkel said. The importance of putting a face and a story to the businesses and shop owners to build that relationship was also stressed. Scott Hamilton noted that people are coming here for the experience and the service. “We’re a part of their summer. The person we are missing is the person already here. We need to re-engage them,” he added.

The meeting lasted for two hours and while there were no decisions made, Voelkel felt good about the exchange of ideas.

“As a merchants community it’s a step to improve and open lines of communication so we can lean on each other more. We’ve heard several ideas on ways to reach out and enhance the energy on Main Street,” she said.

“I was delighted with the turnout,” Voelkel added. The next forum in the series of merchant conversations is expected towards the end of January. The discussion is not limited to members of the association. Residents and town leadership are invited to participate as well. For more information contact Voelkel at chathammerchants@gmail.com.