The Atlantic cites Greenfield in story about online threats posed even to Walmart

  • Downtown Greenfield looking west on Main Street, Thursday. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Friday, March 09, 2018

When the 160-year-old magazine, The Atlantic, went shopping for a place to do a story on the threat to retailers from Amazon and other online sites, it chose Greenfield, the town that just said “no” to Walmart in 1993 and is the home of self-described “sprawl-buster” and big box nemesis, Al Norman.

Although Greenfield managed to keep Walmart out — in part over fear of its potential harm to Main Street — The Atlantic notes, “Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of … e-commerce. Many customers who kept shopping in Greenfield’s downtown because Walmart was too far away are now turning to Amazon and other websites that offer free and fast shipping for basic needs, sapping business away from local stores that had survived for so long. Facing competition from a company as enormous as Amazon, some local stores are having trouble staying open.”

The article, which describes a visit by reporter Alana Semuels to Wilson’s — where she found “no shoppers inside the store the entire time I was there” includes conversations with World Eye owner Jessica Mullins, Opus owner Lisa Cocco and a couple of Greenfield residents, including Norman, who even today is spearheading legal appeal of a permit for a 135,000-square-foot big box on French King Highway.

If the article points to a growing threat to retailers that’s universal, it speculates that Greenfield’s relative absence of big-box stores (it neglects the presence of Home Depot or BJ’s Wholesale) as maybe contributing to the transition to e-commerce by shoppers here. “While there are shops downtown, those don’t offer the selection of a Walmart or Target. And since the only big stores are a 30-minute drive away, many in Greenfield have started buying off Amazon instead,” resident Danielle Jenczyk is quoted as saying. Jenczyk uses her Amazon Prime account for “just about everything” because it provides convenient comparison shopping and free shipping, she said.

Wilson’s President Kevin O’Neil said he was “very disappointed” in the article, and that the author left only one phone message requesting an interview. “There’s no question. It’s very challenging for small retailers and large retailers,” O’Neil said.

Wilson’s, the 135-year-old retailer that is one of only a few remaining independently owned department stores in the country, still gets “several calls a week” for Betty Brewster, its personal shopper, to help customers, and it has an online presence. But O’Neil is among those interviewed who expresses concern about the future of what Main Street could be like if the trend toward more online shopping doesn’t slow.

“What Main Street looks like and how it’s occupied, will be altered, and most likely altered forever,” he said. “It’s a fear of mine from the standpoint of the future of much of the country, because there are a lot of small communities, where people don’t support local shopping.”

Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Natalie Blais said the Atlantic article raised a lot of questions, some of which she hopes can result in research and a “public campaign” to convey the value of supporting the local economy — just as the “Be a Local Hero” campaign by Community Involved in Supporting Agriculture did for local farm products. That local value could been seen as outweighing the apparent convenience and cost savings of online shopping, she said.

“You do have to adapt and adjust,” Blais said of retailers, many of whom face barriers trying to sell online, but who can be helped by a mix of approaches, including the chamber’s Greenfield Dollars, the shoppers’ passport program used during Shelburne Falls Area Business Association’s Moonlight Madness promotion, or by creating more experience-based shopping approaches used by Yankee Candle Co. to appeal to customers.

Another approach, launched last fall by the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, uses an online-based rewards program as a way of showing its appreciation of local shoppers. And the program — Valley Placemaker, used so far by 3,000 people and 25 businesses — could be headed to Franklin County as well as other parts of the Pioneer Valley, according to Northampton Chamber Executive Director Susanne Beck.

“We’re always on the hunt for something tangible that says, ‘Buy local,’” says Beck, whose chamber became among the first in the country to adopt the Portland, Ore.-based program aimed at giving local retailers a competitive advantage with gifts offered as rewards for shopping locally. “It’s a way of saying, we’re going to reward you, and you’ll have fun doing it. It’s an important reminder and tool, so you can feel good about supporting local businesses,” she said.

Greenfield, Shelburne Falls and other parts of the Pioneer Valley, Beck said, already have “a fantastic local culture” that’s exemplified by CISA’s “Local Hero” campaign. “This is sort of piggybacking on that success: Let’s do it for retail. It’s to encourage people to think about what our businesses mean to the character of our community and to foster programs to people thinking about local.”

Ann Hamilton, former head of the Franklin County Chamber, said, “It’s a whole new landscape. And it’s been that way, creeping in for 10 years. No matter what you do, it’s the way of the world. … There’s a younger generation that’s living in a virtual world,” and not as accustomed to having the kinds of interpersonal interactions that shoppers can get from dealing with a helpful store clerk. “I don’t know how we change that conditioning.”

An extensive strategic planning exercise by the chamber never raised concerns about the growing threat of e-commerce, according to chamber President Linda Dunlavy, who is also executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. But the subject was raised by the state’s Rural Policy Advisory Commission, of which Dunlavy is also a member.

The commission is looking into the state’s Sunday “blue laws,” from which Amazon is legally exempt, that require other retailers to pay time and a half to employees working on Sundays.

“All stores, rural and urban, are competing against Amazon, and they’re playing with a different set of rules,” said Dunlavy, who like Beck and Blais pointed to the region’s “very strong mindset” toward buying local food.

Dunlavy agreed that there needs to be a coordinated campaign that encourages consumers to see the importance of shopping locally first and consider the environmental costs — as well as the community costs — of having products shipped across the country.

“Can we make it fairer to compete?” she asked.

O’Neil said Wilson’s and other retailers could be helped if Greenfield offered free downtown parking on Saturday — at least during the Christmas shopping season.

But Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said that in addition to addressing a host of constraints that retailers are under in this state — from competition with tax-free New Hampshire retailers to a higher minimum wage that Amazon doesn’t have to pay, to landlords who will face increased vacancies if they don’t consider the impact of high rents on already burdened small retailers — businesses need to “stay unique and relevant and provide a customer experience that keeps them coming back through the doors again and again.”

The Atlantic article echoes a November, 1993, Newsweek article that focused on Greenfield after it turned down Walmart.

“It doesn’t take too long to finally arrive in Greenfield’s shopping district,” that story said. “The SHOP GREENFIELD sign on Main Street is decorated with withered cornstalks (left from Halloween decorations) and a few empty storefronts are plastered with STOP THE WAL (as in Wal-Mart) signs.”

Norman, who said he and his wife shop from Amazon if products aren’t available locally, said that given a future in which Amazon and other large online retailers dominate the economy by using robots in warehouses and drones to deliver, smaller retailers will be able to survive only by offering, in addition to products, “something that really is a destination.”

“Downtowns have had to shift to entertainment venues — Hawks and Reed, Magpie,” he said, “places where you either eat or are being entertained or both. Those kind of unique destinations will survive.”