Vying for foot traffic: The Holy Grail of downtown commerce
Try scaring up a parking space, hunting down an empty bench or pushing a double-stroller along the crowded sidewalks on peak days, and the popularity of downtown Waynesville’s quaint, tree-lined shopping district is obvious.
But for merchants, getting those browsers off the sidewalks and into their shops is another job altogether.
Jockeying for a piece of the Main Street action doesn’t begin and end with a great window display anymore. From water bowls on the sidewalk for shoppers with canine companions to TVs screening infomercials on a continual loop, merchants have been forced to get creative to capture their share of foot traffic.
“We do have the foot traffic, and everybody wants to be downtown where there is activity and events and festivals and parades and it is just alive with energy,” said Buffy Phillips, the director of the Downtown Waynesville Association.
There’s no pedestrian counter on the street or foot traffic meter to know exactly how many sets of eyeballs shop owners are vying for. So, it takes some educated guesswork.
“On a typical weekend, several thousand,” Phillips wagered.
But the stakes are high for downtown merchants to get even a fraction of those people to open their wallets, especially during the holidays. If all goes well, money made before the New Year will sustain businesses during the lean winter months thereafter.
If not, the dismal number of failed small businesses speaks for itself.
The secret to success on Main Street, for Margarett Hamilton, the manager of High Country West, is that old adage in real estate.
“Location,” Hamilton said, as she stood in her store, pointing through the front window at the nearby corner.
Posted at a major pedestrian intersection and flanked by crosswalks, no matter which way you walk Main Street her store is one you’re bound to stagger past.
And the first thing people see when peering inside her corner window is a rustic bedroom display — which has an uncanny ability to move whatever quilt or linen set is on it.
“I changed it three times just on Saturday because it kept selling,” Hamilton said.
If High Country Design has one of the best locations on Main Street, Good Ol’ Days Cigar shop has one of the worst.
Sure, it’s on Main, but it’s down an inconspicuous flight of stairs, a full floor below street level.
The shop has one thing going for it, however: the smell of cigar smoke wafting up the stairwell.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I smelled it and came by,’” said Chris Hegman, owner of the shop.
For Missy Williams, the trick to luring sidewalk strollers through the door of Main Street Perks coffee shop is having no door at all.
“An open door is a welcome sign. It is an invitation,” Williams said.
A propped open door works so well that shops, up and down Main Street, throw them open even in the thick of July heat or on brisk December days.
“We leave the door open as much as we can. We find it is just intriguing. There’s more of a chance people will walk in,” said Lorrie Worrell, owner of High Country Design, a women’s clothing and accessory boutique.
At Main Street Perks, the open door does double duty. It lets the smell of coffee and baked goods to escape onto the sidewalk.
“I have people say all the time ‘the smell brought us in,’” Williams said.
Inevitably, many downtown Waynesville walkers find themselves in front of “Big” John Porter, trip planner extraordinaire, who mans the counter at the Main Street visitor center every weekend during tourist season.
“I tell people the easiest way to work Main Street is to start at the red light up here and go down one side and back up the other,” said Porter, who works for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.
Looking for antiques? Porter’s got a brochure for that. What about galleries? There’s a brochure for that, too.
Of course, he does his best to plug shops along the side streets, who desperately vie for a slice of the Main Street pie, as well as shopping districts further afield.
But to the recreational shopper — the kind on no particular mission other than to partake in the sheer act of shopping — Main Street is all the browsing paradise they need. Luring them off the beaten path isn’t easy.
But at The Gateway Club, a restaurant and event venue on a side street, Melissa Peterson has a proven formula to capture foot traffic streaming past en route to Main.
“The best way to break down the barrier is to have someone outside who smiles and says ‘hello,’” said Peterson, the marketing director at The Gateway Club.
The Gateway Club faces a double challenge of not only being off Main, but also having an imposing façade.
The castle-like architecture of the former Masonic Lodge — which lacks street-level windows — makes it hard to tell just what’s inside. But station a friendly face with a stack of menus at a podium on the front steps, and the problem is solved.
Interestingly, Peterson has identified late afternoon as “prime time” to score points with prospective evening diners.
“Usually they stake things out while they are out shopping and browsing during the day. People are reading menus and looking at the options for dinner later that night,” Peterson said.
Consequently, The Gateway Club’s front door greeter serves as a de facto concierge for the town, offering up directions, things to do, the day’s weather forecast — and restrooms, as the case may be.
“I love telling people about Waynesville,” Peterson said.
But for stores more than a block off the main drag, tapping the golden goose of Main Street-bound spenders becomes increasingly difficult.
There’s little hope of foot traffic stumbling upon Bocelli’s Italian Eatery, two-and-half blocks from Main Street. So the restaurant cuts right to the chase by putting menus straight into the hands of the Main Street throngs, walking the sidewalk and passing them out in person.
“Often, as a visitor you are discombobulated. You see what is right in front of you but you don’t realize what is just down the street,” said Ellen Schattie, the owner of Bocelli’s.
Sounds of the season
At Good Ol’ Days, Hegman used to battle his B-grade basement location by piping music over outdoor speakers — think Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. — to attract the attention of passersby on the sidewalk above.
“They might look over the edge of the railing and say, ‘What’s down there,’” Hegman said.
At Frog’s Leap, a restaurant one block off Main, sidewalk speakers are often cranking by 9 a.m., long before any semblance of a lunch crowd is forming on the streets. But it’s not meant to attract business. The outdoor speakers are simply on the same circuit as the indoor ones, so the public is inadvertently treated to the chef’s personal selections while doing his prep work in the kitchen.
“That’s the first thing he does when he comes in in the morning — turns the music on and gets the fires going and all that good stuff,” said Toni Raymond, a co-owner of Frog’s Leap, and the chef’s wife. “It is on any time we are here.”
Downtown Asheville, on the other hand, has an ordinance against outdoor music, namely for restaurants. But it’s something the city is considering changing.
“Whatever the fear was when it was put in place — if people were cautious about how rambunctious downtown would get — now I wonder if it is really that important,” said Alan Glines, downtown district planner for the city of Asheville. “Maybe we have just grown up and it is a regulation we no longer need.”
Given the street scene that is downtown Asheville these days, with nearly every block sporting a collection of street performers, who would even notice the noise?
“I am not sure anybody would even think twice about it,” said Joanna Figart with the Downtown Asheville Association.
Fifi’s, a women’s boutique consignment store on Main Street in Waynesville, is among a handful in town with sidewalk speakers, but like the rest, they keep it low enough that it doesn’t bleed past the edge of their own storefront — avoiding what could otherwise be a cacophony of faintly piped music from store after store.
Beverly Hanks, a signature real estate office with Main Street frontage, has a huge TV in its window, trained on the sidewalk, broadcasting a looped lifestyle documentary on Western North Carolina. But the audio is kept so low and unobtrusive that passersby don’t even notice unless they pony right up to the glass.
Brian Cagle, the broker in charge for Beverly Hanks’ Waynesville office, doesn’t want the movie to bombard passersby with their message.
“The idea in my book is to invite people into your space. We try to attract people with some class,” Cagle said.
Keeping it tasteful
While foot traffic is clearly king for retail shops, at first blush, there’s no reason a real estate office would stomach the high rents of Main Street just for the visibility it affords. But in the real estate driven economy of Western North Carolina, a downtown presence has in fact proved vital.
Instead of the traditional front windows of retailers displaying merchandise, real estate offices press their storefronts into service as bulletin boards for property fliers.
Indeed, many of today’s second-home owners started out as tourists, and many a real estate deal has been sealed as a result of vacationers strolling the streets of downtown after dinner — perhaps a bottle of wine, too — and being star-struck by a property flier in the window of a real estate office after hours.
“It is really a form of entertainment to stop and look and see what properties are available,” said Bob Kieltyka, director of the Highlands Chamber of Commerce.
It’s so commonplace that in downtown Highlands, real estate offices are exempt from the standard town limits on window signage.
“A normal business is allowed to cover 20 percent of the inside of their windows with signage. But the real estate businesses can actually cover 100 percent,” said Jose Ward, who works in the town planning office there.
And cover them they do.
In downtown Waynesville, however, real estate offices can’t paper more than 20 percent of their windows. Keeping that percentage reined in was a constant battle in years past.
“Probably 90 percent of some windows were covered. They would have to get a ladder out to mount this stuff in the window space,” said Byron Hickox, Waynesville’s code enforcement officer.
Hickox would then ask them nicely to take some down, and they do.
But, “Weeks or months would go by and they would gradually sneak a few more up there and before you knew it, they were filled up again,” said Hickox.
These days, Beverly Hanks’s Waynesville office has raised the bar for real estate fliers making a window debut. Despite gargantuan glass windows — stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall — only a small collection of real estate fliers are on display, relegated to one side.
“It is a very intentional decision,” said Cagle, admitting some in the office have pushed for more fliers.
Not only does Cagle put the brakes on the number, but the fliers are displayed in classy glass frames suspended by thin silver wires.
It’s a break from the past, when real estate offices printed out reams of property listings on white computer paper and stuck up them up with Scotch tape.
In part, Cagle’s desire to be on Main Street isn’t about capturing casual foot traffic anyway. It’s all about branding — being identified with the best of what Waynesville has to offer.
“At the heart of the matter, we love Waynesville and we want to be in the heart of what makes Waynesville great,” Cagle said. “We sell the area. The house comes later.”
Ultimately, downtown Waynesville merchants realize individual success hinges on Main Street’s charm. Undermining the greater good in an arm’s race to stand out from the crowd could hurt downtown in the long run. Luckily, business owners don’t try to get a leg up at the expense of the whole.
“There’s probably an unwritten rule,” said Cagle.
While Main Street merchandise is conspicuously devoid of air-brushed T-shirts, likewise visitors won’t find florescent banners proclaiming “Everything must go!”
Downtown, even the signs boasting sales and specials are done tastefully, like the small black slate on a rustic wooden frame just inside the door of High Country Design boutique.
“It looks like the store. It doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb,” said Lorrie Worrell, the owner of the upscale and unique women’s clothing and accessory shop.
The refined sense of aesthetics doesn’t go unnoticed by tourists.
“You could kill the flavor by trying to do different marketing things,” said Augie Barker, a frequent downtown visitor from Knoxville, with a vacation home outside Waynesville.
“It’s got to be cohesive,” his wife Susan agreed.