Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
How can local businesses compete with a company so local it lets people shop from their couches?
GREENFIELD, Mass.—Al Norman has been fighting to keep Walmart and other big-box retailers out of small towns like this one for 25 years. He’s been successful in Greenfield, his hometown and the site of his first battle with Walmart, and in dozens of other towns across the country—victories he documents on his website Sprawl-Busters, an “International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information.” Partly because of Norman’s efforts to keep out such stores, Greenfield still has a Main Street with dozens of businesses, including a bookstore, a record store, and Wilson’s, one of the last independently owned department stores in the country.
But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: 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.
I twice stopped by Wilson’s, the department store, to try to meet the manager, and saw no shoppers inside the store the entire time I was there. (Wilson’s did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.) And Home Furnishing Co., a 100-year-old store in downtown Greenfield, closed last year, and then Magical Child, a toy store on the brink of closing, partnered with a local bookstore, World Eye Bookshop, to remain open, consolidating into one storefront.
“If you were going to pick a place years ago that would still support small businesses, and shop downtown first, I would have said Greenfield would be that place,” Jessica Mullins, the owner of World Eye, told me. But her store’s sales were down significantly last year. Several customers who were once reliable shoppers now come in and find out about new books and games, take a picture of them, and then buy the products online, where they’re cheaper. It’s a practice called “showrooming,” and while the executives running big legacy retailers are the ones who most publicly lament it, it can hurt smaller shops too. “People are getting on Amazon and they’re not getting off,” Mullins said.
Greenfield and other towns across New England are learning that while they might have been able to keep out big-box stores through zoning changes and old-fashioned advocacy, there’s not much they can do about consumers’ shift to e-commerce. They can’t physically keep out e-commerce stores—which don’t have a physical presence in towns that residents could push back against—and they certainly can’t restrict residents’ internet access. “It’s one thing for me to try and fight over land use in the town I live in, or in somebody else's town,” Norman told me, over lunch in a diner on Greenfield’s Main Street. “But e-shopping creates a real problem for activists, because on some level, shopping online is a choice people make, and it’s hard to intrude yourself in that.”
Shoppers are, as Norman well knows, increasingly turning to Amazon and other e-commerce sites. Online sales represented about 13 percent of American retail sales in 2017, according to Forrester, a research firm, which projects that number will grow to 17 percent by 2022. And about one-third of online purchases are made through Amazon, Forrester says—83 percent of American adults who use the internet (that is to say, nearly all of them) made a purchase from Amazon in 2016. This has translated to a decline in shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. Last year, more chain-store locations closed than in any previous year.
The dominance of e-commerce has affected Main Streets too: Around 90 percent of independent retailers said that Amazon was having a negative impact on their business, according to a 2017 survey of more than 850 such businesses. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of retail firms with fewer than 10 employees fell by 9 percent, according to census data.
Of course, there’s a reason Amazon and other e-commerce sites are so difficult for small businesses to compete with: The convenience of online shopping is unmatched. Amazon’s rise is proof that as much as some consumers may want to support nearby businesses, in a sense there’s nothing more local than shopping from their living-room couch.
And, as the company pointed out when I contacted it about this article, Amazon does create some opportunities for independent businesses as well. More than 140,000 small and medium-sized businesses each sold more than $100,000 in goods on Amazon last year, according to the company. “We are empowering so many retailers—many of them small businesses and main street businesses—to reach customers, not just in the U.S., but around the world,” an Amazon spokesman, Erik Farleigh, wrote to me in an email.
Roundabout Books, a small business a mile from Greenfield’s Main Street, is an example of a shop that has been able to grow because of e-commerce. Raymond Neal, a former schoolteacher, opened the store six years ago, and most of his business is used books. Online retail—including selling through Amazon—has helped him keep the doors open. (He bemoans the fees he has to pay Amazon for the privilege, however.) He estimates that half of his revenue comes from online sales; the other half is a mix of in-store transactions and pop-up sales he does in busy locations like downtown Boston. “I go where the customers are,” he told me. But his Greenfield location produces only a small part of his revenues—if he makes $50 in a day in his store, it’s a good day, he said.
The shift of retail away from brick-and-mortar stores to online ones represents a fundamental change in the American economy, one that has big repercussions for communities like Greenfield. The average American spends nearly $15,000 a year on retail shopping, according to census data. If that money is going to companies based far away, the local economy may suffer, because less money is being kept in the community. Money spent at an independent business generates four times the direct local economic benefit than money spent at a chain store—in terms of employee pay, local charitable giving, and employee spending—according to an analysis done by Civic Economics, a research firm that studies independent businesses. Local business owners will often spend the money they earn from their business nearby, at restaurants, bars, and other retail stores. Also, as I’ve written before, the decline of local retail also has major implications for cities and towns’ ability to raise revenues through sales taxes.
There are other, less tangible, changes that occur when brick-and-mortar businesses disappear. As Main Streets become sparser, there will be fewer of the spontaneous, community-building interactions that take place when residents run into each other on the sidewalk or at a store. People who live in the same town might start to meet less often in person as they shop more from their couches and work more from their dining-room tables. Relatedly, small businesses are often the linchpins of a community—they sponsor softball teams and cookouts, charity auctions and parade floats. Bob Nelson, the owner of Nelson Ace Hardware in Barre, Vermont, another town struggling to revitalize its Main Street, said he gets “at least one request a day” to sponsor a local cause, whether it be the local Rotary Club or Lion’s Club or softball team. But who will be left to sponsor softball teams or floats in parades if there is no more small-town retail?
It’s possible that as e-commerce companies continue to encroach on brick-and-mortar stores, they will support communities in the same way that other small businesses traditionally have. Amazon pointed out that it has sponsored, among other events, holiday festivals in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, a Pride parade in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a summer reading program in San Antonio. But going to Amazon for donations is fundamentally different from walking into a store and asking the owner, based on a personal relationship, for support.
For the residents of Greenfield in particular, the decline of small businesses is hard to bear because the town has a history of resisting national companies that have tried to come in and set up shop. The first anti-Walmart battle, in the mid-1990s, was prompted after the town council rezoned a plot of land, thus allowing a developer to build a Walmart. Norman, the Sprawl Buster, led a ballot initiative to reverse that zoning decision, and his narrow win surprised just about everybody in Greenfield, including him. “We really tried to play up the idea that Greenfield had a lot to lose,” he told me. “Our slogan was, ‘You can buy cheap underwear at Walmart, but you can’t buy small-town quality of life anywhere.’”
A decade later, when a developer again tried to put a Walmart outside of town, Norman fought it because the new site was on a wetland. Eventually, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection forbade construction. Then, in 2011, when the developer reconfigured the site and won a planning board’s permission to build, Norman found plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against the developer that is still winding its way through court. He drove me by both sites when I was in town, and both are still tree-filled fields, rather than the big stores developers had envisioned.
Lisa Cocco, the owner of Opus, a Main Street boutique selling small gifts like jewelry, pottery, and wind chimes that has been around for 28 years, said that when she thought Walmart was coming to Greenfield, she opened a second store in another town because she didn’t think her original location could withstand the retailer’s presence. The Walmart didn’t come, so she stayed open in Greenfield. Now, she’s not sure if she can weather the switch to e-commerce. She told me customers come in and browse, find something they like, and compare prices online when she’s standing right there. “It’s seriously hurting business,” she said. “I’m extremely discouraged.”
In some ways, Greenfield’s lack of big-box stores might have accelerated residents’ transition to e-commerce. 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. “There are only a certain number of things you can get downtown,” Danielle Jenczyk, a 37-year-old Greenfield resident told me. Jencyzk told me she shops on Amazon for just about everything, since she gets free shipping through her Prime subscription and because she can look at product reviews before she buys anything.
Small businesses in other towns that successfully kept big-box stores out are also having trouble. In Randolph, for instance, a Vermont town that recently fought off a proposal to build a shopping mall and a hotel on the outskirts of town, Belmain’s, a variety store that has been in business since 1934, announced in October that it would close. The store’s owners said it was closing because of “the growth and convenience of Amazon and other mail-order companies and the lack of good steady flow of foot traffic in Randolph.” And that likely isn’t due to any decline in population—Vermont actually gained residents between 2000 and 2016.
The whole state of Vermont has long been a difficult place for big-box stores to locate—the state won’t get its first Target until later this year. That’s in large part because of Act 250, a state law that gives regional environmental commissions the power to deny building permits for big projects. But despite those successes, Paul Bruhn, the executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the state’s architectural heritage, is concerned about the future of Vermont’s downtowns. “With most small businesses, you don't have to take away all of their business for them to fail,” Bruhn told me. “A business that loses 10 percent to 20 percent because of Amazon, that’s a big impact.”
Some communities are trying to push back against the decline of independent businesses by launching campaigns asking people to shop local, such as Local First Arizona and Portland Buy Local. (Greenfield launched its own currency—Greenfield Dollars—in hopes of getting people to spend money in the area.) City officials can zone downtowns for mixed-use retail, and create affordable commercial space in new housing developments, said Stacy Mitchell, the co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that’s skeptical of big business. Some cities have helped set up community banks that are more likely to give out small-business loans, Mitchell said.
But it will be hard for cities to create a shopping environment more convenient than Amazon’s. Julie Keane, a 30-year-old who lives in Greenfield, told me that her family understands the importance of supporting local businesses, going to the Wilson’s department store when they can. But she has a 10-month-old son, and often, Amazon has baby products that the department store doesn’t. When Amazon was offering a free Prime trial two years ago, her family signed up. They now use it frequently, since it saves them time—it doesn’t make sense for Keane to pack her son into the car and drive to the Target 30 minutes away for the same products. And as long as she’s buying those sorts of products on Amazon, she’s likelier to buy other products, the kind available on Main Street, from the company too—the longer someone is a Prime member, the more money they spend on the site, studies show. “We try to shop locally,” she told me. “But sometimes, there are better options online to what we have.”
How might local businesses respond? “I think you’re seeing that local merchants are thinking seriously about what their advantage is,” said Marc Levinson, the author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America. Some small retailers are trying to offer services that e-retailers can’t offer to draw in customers. Seth Lustig, the owner of Greenfield Games, another Main Street store, says that his business has been able to attract customers by organizing game nights and other events for people to learn about new products they might not naturally come across online. Nelson, the hardware-store owner in Vermont, says helpful customer service helps him draw in shoppers—people who know that he’ll assemble products for free will come in rather than buying something online and having to assemble it themselves.
But the challenge posed by online shopping to local businesses is immense. Even Al Norman, who refuses to shop at Walmart, says he doesn’t have the same aversion to Amazon, in part because he thinks the internet is the future of shopping. His wife has a Prime account, and he recently ordered tea from the website when he couldn’t find it locally, he said, adding that he has no plans to organize protests or zoning meetings about Amazon. He doesn’t love the idea that some of his money is going to Jeff Bezos, “the richest human around,” as he refers to the Amazon founder, and so still shops locally whenever possible. He doesn’t know whether he’ll still be doing that in a decade. When he launched the first campaign against Walmart in Greenfield 25 years ago, he led activists with bumper stickers that said, “If you build it, we won’t come.” He knows the same can’t be said for Amazon, because shoppers, including him, are already there.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.