By Carlos Castillo
Marketing Novato has been in the news recently as the Measure F debate continues and residents question if revenue generated by the sales tax bump should be used to sell the city as a place to do business.
The Shop Local campaign is another recent attempt to bring in more dollars.
Both initiatives echo the often-repeated belief that you need money to make money. But I believe you can’t just spend your way out of a problem.
Area businesses (and maybe even local government) need to find other solutions. One such strategy is simple: keep the lights on and the doors open to accommodate commute-weary customers, people who don’t get home until after 6 p.m.
I own Loveable Rogue bookstore in downtown Novato and to mark my first anniversary in September I extended my weekday hours until 8 p.m. On Friday, I’m open until 9 pm. I used to close at 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but experimented with the extra hour this past August. It paid off, literally. More and different customers were coming through the door during that extra hour.
In the preceding months, I had seen too many people, fresh from a meal at one of the local restaurants, cruising the downtown sidewalks after dark, cupping their hands to peek through windows of closed stores. I had also heard a common refrain from my customers: nothing is open on Grant Avenue in the evening.
Longer hours is a strategy also followed by Roger Goodwin, who owns Old Town Sports, a few doors away from my place. Roger is one of the grizzled retail veterans in Novato, having opened Old Town back when I was a disco-dancing ninth-grader. For years Roger has been rallying to convince local merchants to burn the midnight oil.
Awhile back, Roger crunched some of his own numbers to prove his point. Fourteen percent of Old Town’s sales were made between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sundays, when many businesses close outright, generated another 11 percent of his total gross sales.
“That’s 25 percent of annual volume, when other businesses are closed,” Roger said. “I could not survive with 25 percent less volume and they can’t hope to either.”
Roger estimates that about 15 percent to 20 percent of downtown businesses stay open until 8pm, if you include restaurants in the count. Take restaurants out of the mix and that number falls to just 10 percent.
The result is that customers are taking their dollars to Northgate and the other malls in Corte Madera. Malls can mandate business hours, so all the tenants are forced to comply and stay open.
However, Roger acknowledges that not all the Downtown Novato retailers depend on their businesses to put food on the table. Precluding these dilettantes, Roger has heard all manner of excuses over the years, including from people who say they’re the sole proprietors of their shops and/or have children.
Roger, who is the sole proprietor and has children, is critical of these excuses.
“Put somebody in there. Pay somebody to be there for two or three hours,” he said.
But Roger is quick to point out that consistency is key to making a longer-hours strategy work. Doing it every now and then will probably fail. The business needs to prove to the customer that the business is committed to its stated hours.
Building trust and a steady clientele takes time, just as building a business takes time. If you don’t believe this, come to my store and I’ll hold my nose and order you one of those get-rich-quick books that attract way too many suckers.
“Shop Local” and other such slogans without any action will only amount to expensive blather. We’ve got to give residents solid reasons to patronize our businesses. Maintaining longer hours by a critical mass of merchants is a step in that direction.
Carlos Castillo is the owner of Loveable Rogue, a bookstore located at 867 Grant Ave. in Novato.
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