Successful independent businesses listen to their customers and move with the times
By Kay Turnbaugh
Just like everywhere, Boulder County took a big hit during the recession. Not only residents, but also local businesses. Now that we’re finally putting those years behind us, the county’s smaller businesses are beginning to rebound. But local support is crucial to their efforts, they say.
“Part of the reason I started Boulder Magazine in 1978 was that the locally owned stores on Pearl Street were starting to disappear,” says Tom Brock, owner of Brock Media. “Larger chains were coming in, and the banks had started to consolidate. It upset me because I knew that a dollar spent in a locally owned business recirculates many times in the community.”
On the Pearl Street Mall, springtime brings tulips and about 80 percent local business. From late June through the end of August, visitors outnumber the locals, about 60-40. “But without that 40 percent of local shoppers, the businesses wouldn’t be here,” says Sean Maher, executive director of Downtown Boulder Inc.
“Boulder customers are savvy,” says Barry Hight, whose grandfather started McGuckin Hardware in 1955. “People want to move here because of the great things we have, like our open space. And they realize those things are being paid for by people who shop locally and pay taxes here.”
Since the recession “there have been some changes downtown,” says Dana Culbertson, owner of JJ Wells, a clothing store that has been serving Boulder for 33 years. “But the economy is better now. We have a great talent pool in Boulder, and we have fabulous restaurants, wonderful shopping, good merchants. Hopefully people are out exploring.”
The Price of Cachet
Locals supporting small local businesses aren’t the only factor in creating a sustainable business community, however. And a savvy market doesn’t guarantee success. Every year, newcomers enter the business pool. Some make a big splash and soon go under. “Boulder is a sophisticated market,” Culbertson says, “and Boulderites have a high expectation of businesses.” The problem is that as the Boulder market has become more sophisticated, the challenges to those who want to start something new have become more daunting.
“One thing that makes it difficult for a new business is high rents in Boulder,” Brock says. “Realtors and developers call Boulder a ‘developing marketplace.’ Unfortunately, it’s developed into a marketplace beyond the means of many retail startups. I would like to see an ‘affordable housing’ program for independent Boulder businesses, something that would help get them going.”
Rent is a major expense, Maher agrees—“or more accurately, the total occupancy costs,” he says. “Many shops pay a triple-net lease—on top of rent, they pay for common-area maintenance, insurance and property tax. That could add another 30 percent to the base rent.” Although Pearl Street Mall rents are probably some of the highest in the county, just behind Twenty Ninth Street, they are not out of line, in Maher’s opinion. “They are on par with LoDo or Cherry Creek North. Pearl Street is an exciting place to come shop and spend money, and the rents reflect that.”
It is expensive to do business in any area with that kind of cachet. And then, the cost of doing business goes up every year—not just here, but everywhere in the country—as freight, credit card fees, insurance, workers’ compensation, utilities and rents climb higher every year.
That means new businesses need plenty of capital. “Businesses fail,” says Culbertson, “because they don’t have enough capital to start.” Maher agrees. “Businesses that are undercapitalized for the first 10 or 12 years often don’t make it.”
Listening & Adapting
But perhaps the first thing a new business needs to succeed is a good idea.
“If you have the product, you can make it,” Maher says. “The businesses that fail, both small local businesses and national chains, fail because they haven’t done their homework.”
“When I started Boulder Magazine we offered free listings for arts and culture events, and we had about three dozen events listed,” Brock says. “Today, it’s almost a thousand”— which translates into patrons for Boulder’s cultural and community events.
What Hight finds unique about doing business in Boulder is the chances he gets to help local inventors and entrepreneurs. “We have a different selection than most hardware stores. We carry items from locals that the national chains won’t carry. We can help them develop their prototype,” Hight says. “A lot of people here are thinking about the next best thing.” For example, two students from the business school at the University of Colorado asked him to participate in a project they were doing on the difference between big-box stores and local stores. “Their idea at first was to show how big-box stores control the marketplace and small businesses struggle. But they figured out that’s not how it is.”
If a business is going to make it long-term, it must listen to customers and find ways to continually serve their needs. Some businesses, like McGuckin, Peppercorn and Boulder Bookstore, have endured and become fixtures of Boulder County. Listening and flexibility are the keys.
“The businesses that have been here a long time, 25 or 30 years, the owners are in their stores. You can walk in, and the owner will come and talk to you. They are constantly listening to those customers and learning what people respond to,” says Maher. “The world is changing all the time, and the successful businesses are willing to adapt.”
McGuckin has been in business in Boulder for 60 years. What’s its secret for success? “We’re like an old-fashioned crackerbarrel store. We have lots of shoppable items, and great service,” Hight says. “We ask our employees to have a lot of knowledge that they can share. Our goal is to make people come here every day for what they need.”
Business is thriving in other Boulder County communities as well, including Louisville, Lafayette and Longmont.
The Longmont Area Economic Council is focused on bringing small businesses to Longmont, and they’re not having a difficult time. Boulder’s high rents have forced many small businesses to look for opportunities outside that city. “Now, they can find a building in one of the other towns in Boulder County,” Brock says. “Longmont is like Boulder was 30 to 40 years ago.”
Longmont’s revitalized downtown area recently received a major boost when it was certified as a “Creative District,” one of only 12 in the state. The program was established by the state legislature in 2011 to enhance cultural and economic vitality and serve as a focal point of community identity.
During the certification process, the downtown Longmont district redeveloped real estate for mixed-use purposes, opened four new galleries on Main Street and an arts-education center, and completed new public art projects. Next on the agenda is an artist incubator program housed within the studios at the Roosevelt Park Apartments mixed-use complex.
The really big downtown project for 2015 is the old Butterball turkey plant site south of First Street on Main. Demolished over the past several months, the plant will be replaced by four or five four-story buildings with 300 apartments and 10,500 square feet of commercial space.
Today, in downtown Longmont, sales tax revenues are up 32 percent since 2010, and the newly streetscaped Main Street is vibrant with foot traffic. Forty restaurants and bars in the downtown area complement the many shopping opportunities, including five music stores and gift shops like Discovery Egyptian Imports, Old Town Outfitters and Crackpots pottery studio.
The Longmont Downtown Development Authority, funded by a portion of property taxes in the district, is continuing its work on streetscaping and alleyways, and looking at getting a historic-district designation. Future efforts will include pushing outward into other parts of the district, extending the positive energy the LDDA has built over the last few years.
But in truth, the county’s small businesses are not separate from the overall community. They’re part of the community at large. “The owners of local businesses are often the ones who sit on local boards and run the PTA,” Brock says, “and they support local arts and culture.”
Hopefully, we in turn support them.
Why Shop at Home?
Shopping locally pays off, and not just for your friends and neighbors who rely on your patronage. It pays off in a healthier, more vibrant community. One dollar spent at a locally owned business will return five times that amount to the community through city taxes, employees’ wages, and purchases of materials and supplies at other local, independent businesses. In addition, says the Boulder County Independent Business Alliance, a local business turns that dollar back into the community through school funding, social services, and contributions to local nonprofit organizations.
By comparison, chains and franchises contribute roughly 40 percent and at times as little as 20 percent of the store’s sales back to the community, mostly through employee wages. And, since independent businesses usually don’t receive the same tax credits offered to chain stores, they contribute a greater proportion of revenues to local taxes.
Kay Turnbaugh writes about a variety of subjects for Boulder Magazine. She is the author of Around Nederland, the award-winning The Last of the Wild West Cowgirls and The Mountain Pine Beetle—Tiny but Mighty, and co-author of the upcoming second edition of Denver/Boulder & Colorado’s Front Range: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide and Rocky Mountain National Park Dining Room Girl: The Summer of 1926 at the Horseshoe Inn.