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Focus on "Revitalizing Retail" at Napa Valley College stresses Social Media

The Upper Valley Campus of Napa Valley College hosted a workshop seminar entitled “Practical Strategies to Revitalize & Thrive in the Retail Business” on May 1. Marc Wilson, a retail consultant, focused on ways to use social media to entice "invisible customers" into the local shops.

It’s not news that retail shops in small towns like St. Helena and Calistoga struggle. But according to retail consultant Marc Wilson, “Brick & Mortar retail is far from dead,” and it’s the invisible shoppers of the Internet who hold the keys to the retail future of small towns.

"Moving On" Goodman's relocated to Calistoga

One of St. Helena’s oldest commercial businesses, Goodman’s Department Store, moved from the Richie Building to a new location in Calistoga, citing the difficulties of running a retail store in St. Helena.

By using free social media, the task of a savvy retailer in today’s retail environment is to transform virtual shoppers into the real customers who cross the threshold of the store.

Wilson spoke at a workshop seminar at the Upper Valley Campus of Napa Valley College entitled “Practical Strategies to Revitalize & Thrive in the Retail Business” on May 1. The workshop was sponsored by Napa-Sonoma Small Business Development Center (SBDC) along with the Chamber of Commerce organizations of American Canyon, Calistoga, Napa, St. Helena and Yountville.

Footcandy storefront, for lease

The former storefront of Foot Candy at 1239 Main St. was one of 15 vacant shops and buildings in downtown St. Helena as of mid-January.

“We are at a ‘tipping point’” he said of retail. “And retail is one of the most important opportunities for small towns because it puts significantly more money into the local economy than either Big Box retail or Internet enterprises. It has a ‘Buy Local’ multiplier effect.”

According to Wilson, the key to retail success in small towns is not to compete with the Big Box stores or the online enterprises such as “Big Box stores don’t work anymore any way,” he said. “And Amazon already owns 50 percent of Online Retail.”

Instead of trying to compete with these enterprises – with commerce sites on the Internet — he said the focus should instead be to “differentiate” and to focus on customer service, and customer loyalty. And to get customers into the retail shop, retailers must recognize the reality of today’s virtual customers.

Moving to Calistoga

Earlier this year, Sarah Lane, proprietor of Rabbit Rabbit, decided to move her Fair Trade gift shop to Calistoga. “It seems like Calistoga is going to be the right place to be,” she said.

“What is it that visiting people do here for entertainment,” he asked rhetorically. “They shop. So when they arrive in town, what’s the first thing they do? They Google your town on their cellphone.”

“Nine out of 10 customers will visit your store using the Internet before they ever set foot over the threshold.” These, according to Wilson, are actually “invisible shoppers” who are checking the shops out with Google, Trip Advisor, and other sites before they get out of their cars.

Consequently, according to Wilson, it’s imperative to “Get Found” by actively using the social networking tools (Google, Facebook, Yelp!, Trip Advisor and other sites) to leverage the visibility of the local shops to the best possible advantage.

Services like Trip Advisor and Google Maps, he said, provide these potential customers with an interactive tour for restaurants, hotel accommodations, and “things to do.” If a retail shop isn’t listed, it doesn’t exist on these maps. He used Trip Advisor as an example to prove his point. So one attendee took a quick peak at Napa Valley’s retail profiles on Trip Advisor.

St. Helena had but nine “shopping” retail shops listed, and Calistoga had a similar number. The rest were restaurants and hotels. There were even reviews of shops that had no actual profile listings, with no information about the stores themselves.

Wilson encouraged the seminar group to use free Internet social and media sites, such as Facebook, Google for Business, Instagram, and others.

“Remember this acronym,” Wilson said “GYBO: Get Your Business Online, and the use the free social media to leverage your profiles. If you don’t have a website, go to Google for Business and you can create one for free. Then go to YouTube and create a channel – use photos and video footage. Change them every 30 days. Get reviews and testimonials and remember that the biggest leverage your store will ever receive is ‘word-of-mouth.’”

One attendee was Sister Marie from the Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga. The monastery opened a small retail shop last year to sell children’s book, homemade food products and religious items. She asked how to manage the frequent repeat questions she was fielding in the shop. Wilson was quick to answer. “Be sure to create a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ or FAQ for your site.” He also stressed that testimonials were essential elements – complete with customer photos – to ensure that potential new customers can feel at home before actually visiting the shop.

A number of other attendees (who did not want to be identified by name) said that there were many interesting pieces of advice that they believed they gained from the seminar.

“I think it’s sad,” said one. “That so many stores in St. Helena remain empty. We have such a beautiful downtown. So I found it interesting that he made the point about how today’s customers visit a store virtually before they actually come to shop.”

Another said that he had gone online to Trip Advisor and Yelp! to see how his shop appeared. “I realized that we didn’t have actual profiles on those sites, but that some customers had already given testimonials. It made me realize how today’s shoppers are so enmeshed in social media.”

One shop owner talked about the uniqueness of towns like St. Helena. “We have a lot of tourist traffic,” he said. “We hadn’t considered those ‘invisible shoppers’ from social media.”

Another attendee, asked if the seminar was useful, said, “I think it was. But as a shop owner I have to wear so many hats…. I know I need to keep better track of the trends. Now all I have to do is find the time.”



Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.