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Breaking the code: Merchants hope study provides reliable data about customers

For two and a half years, David Erikson at Twigs and Leaves has offered a monthly drawing for a gift certificate as a surreptitious means to compel customers to share their hometown address.

“When I first started the business, I assumed the majority of my customers were in fact tourists,” Erikson said. But when Erikson made a casual statement to that effect in his store one day, a slightly offended customer at the counter quickly proclaimed her status as a local. Erikson reassessed his assumption and ultimately started the gift certificate drawing as a way to quantify exactly where his shoppers were coming from.

Deanna Schleifer, the owner of Christmas is Everyday in downtown Waynesville, was so curious about where her customers came from she got a new cash register program in February that lets her enter the zip code of every shopper.

Meanwhile, for 15 years Garey Wagner has been casually asking his customers at the Blue Owl, a Waynesville Main Street pottery and art gallery, where they are from and how they stumbled on Waynesville.

“If I were going to guess, I would say it’s half and half,” Wagner said of the split between second-home owners and tourists.

Many merchants have been doing personal research on their customer base for years. But soon, they will be able to get their hands on real live data. A collective zip code study that could put an end to the anecdotal guesswork will be conducted in Waynesville and Canton for a week in June and July. Merchants will be asked to record the zip codes of shoppers, which will then be turned over to a marketing firm for analysis.

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The study will do more than simply answer the intriguing question on the minds of both merchants and those stuck in traffic on Friday afternoon: where did all these people come from?

The study will direct and target marketing to bring even more of these people to town.

“We didn’t have any reliable baseline data to look at in our market,” said Ron Huelster, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “The purpose of this study is to let this data tell us what is going on in the market without preconceived notions.”

Huelster suggested the idea for the zip code analysis a couple of years ago. His original intent was to conduct the study in the greater downtown area, but soon other business districts in Waynesville jumped on board, as did the town of Canton.

The data could be a boon to numerous organizations that do collective marketing — groups such as the Waynesville Gallery Association, the Waynesville Bed and Breakfast Association, the Downtown Waynesville Association, Hazelwood Village merchants and FOCUS on the Greater Area Canton. The big entities like the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and Haywood County Tourism Development Authority could also benefit.

“The more information you know about who is visiting your town the better off you are,” said Brian Alligood, a planner with Martin-McGill out of Asheville who is coordinating the portion of the study in Canton.

Individual merchants are already thinking about ways to put the data to use as well. For example, if an unusual zip code pops up in several stores on the same day, it can show the pattern of specific shoppers.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how customers move down the street,” said Becky Trump with the Olde Brick House. “We’ve philosophized for a while that everyone hits every store, but are they? Or are they visually assessing the storefront from the outside and deciding whether to go in? It could change the way we do our merchandizing.”


The second-home variable

The firm hired to conduct the study, Arnett Muldrow of Greenville, S.C., has done similar studies for roughly 40 communities. Haywood County’s study will be a little different from the rest, however.

“Normally we just ask ‘What is your zip code?’ and record it,” said Aaron Arnett, a market analyst with the firm. “We are doing it a little differently here than other places because of the second-home market. That has always been a focus of this study — trying to get your finger on the impact and depth of whatever that second-home market is.”

Simply asking people for their zip code won’t work for second-home owners like Jim and Julie Bennett, who were browsing in the Blue Owl art gallery in Waynesville Monday looking for art to decorate their recently purchased second-home at Smoky Mountain Retreat. They live in Lake Norman and visit their second-home about once a month. Other than yard work, shopping downtown is their top activity.

“That is exactly what we do,” Julie said.

But if the Bennetts are caught shopping during the zip code blitz, which zip code would they give? If they give their out of town zip code, they would show up in the data as tourists from Lake Norman. But if they give the zip code for Smoky Mountain Retreat, they look like locals.

Another pair of shoppers spied downtown on Monday, John Rieckelman and his wife, would pose the same problem. They have a second home in Cashiers and spent the day shopping in downtown Waynesville after going to the cancer center at Haywood Regional Medical Center. Not exactly tourists, but not locals either.

To capture this unique market, the forms used by merchants taking part in the study will have a place to record two zip codes: a primary zip code and second-home zip code.

After 15 years of asking folks where they are from, Wagner foresees no trouble extracting zip code information from shoppers. Everyone is used to it by now.

“Everytime you go to Lowe’s, they ask that,” Wagner said.

The analysis of the second-home market won’t stop with the merchants, however. The marketing firm will analyze the out-of-town zip codes of every property owner in the county using records on file with the county tax office. The study will show not only how many second-home owners there are from Boca Raton versus Charleston, it will also show the dollar value of homes people from different regions buy when they come here.

To round out the second-home analysis, a focus group of Realtors and homebuilders will offer insight into trends they see in the second-home industry.


Come one, come all

Huelster said the success of the study is contingent on participation by merchants.

“The data is only as reliable as the level of participation,” said Huelster, who has started asking merchants to take part.

Arnett will hold a training session for merchants on Tuesday, May 30, at 7 p.m. at the Haywood Community College High Tech Center to explain the forms.

The analysis of the zip codes will include a breakdown for different geographic areas within both Waynesville and Canton and a breakdown of different sectors, such as restaurants, antique stores, pharmacies or art galleries. The zip code profile of individual businesses will be confidential and shared only with that business owner.

“That will give them an analysis of their position in the regional market and how they compare to the big picture,” Huelster said.

Several merchants are wondering if the data will dispel misconceptions about shopper demographics. Jo Kelley, owner of Ridge Runner Naturals, said there is a perception that most tourists and second-home owners hail from Florida and Georgia. But Kelley suspects the data will show otherwise.

“We get people from all over,” Kelley said. “This will give us an idea of people coming to Haywood County and a better idea of who we need to market to.”

Jeannie Tracy, owner of the Jeweler’s Workbench, thinks locals will have a stronger showing in the data than most people expect. Tracy finds out where her customers are from by asking them if they want to receive announcements of upcoming sales and has discovered a large portion are locals shopping for special presents.

In addition to collecting zip codes, the marketing firm will conduct interviews with community leaders, elected officials and members of the business community.

“That will provide anecdotal information on how they visualize the market and what Haywood County should be doing,” Huelster said. Two public meetings will be held in late June to allow an opportunity for the general public to offer insight on commerce in Waynesville and Canton.

The study is being funded by grants from several different sources: the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, Advantage West, the towns of Waynesville and Canton, and several local banks.

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