Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
There are a lot of empty storefronts in town, and I can tell you one thing the shops and restaurants that used to occupy them had in common: I hadn’t been in most of them.
Call that a huge coincidence, if you want, but I’d say it’s not. Why? No, it’s not because I have the financial wherewithal to keep all the businesses I patronize afloat. I am neither the great shopper nor the big spender. Retailers do not close the doors and head out on month-long vacations to the Caribbean after I finish a spree in their stores. But, I do live here, and not in a cave either, so I get out and about and sometimes I buy things. I’m not impulsive, but I do have modest wants and constant needs. I think that I am a pretty typical local.
If I haven’t been in your store, you probably haven’t been trying very hard to lure me in. I know this because I am naturally curious, and so it doesn’t take much. And, if you haven’t enticed me, there are probably a lot of other people who live here that you haven’t rolled out the welcome mat for either. If you haven’t done that, you have missed out on a lot of year-round business. And, without year-round business, when visitors get finicky (e.g., Now), your cash registers will ring less often and with that dull muted tone.
It brings up the age-old question of which came first, the store or the customer. Lots of businesspeople are fond of saying, “build it and they will come.” I suggest that “they” are already here. If this is the case, you only have to build what “they” are comfortable with. Simple, small-town thinking like this will save you the cost of an extravagant (read: very expensive) remodel of your retail space or the brain damage from thinking up a “unique” (read: even more expensive) theme for a new bar to entertain bored, rich tourists.
People new to town forget that despite people like Andrew Kole trying to turn every day in Aspen into a special event, there is still a lot of off-season in this town. Aside from July, August, March and one-half of June, January, and December, plus two weekends in February, Aspen is pretty much a bustling metropolis of about 6,000 people. If your business is only catering to the tourist trade, your clerks and sales staff are going to be busy twiddling their thumbs and gossiping behind your back for almost eight months a year because they have nothing else to do. Meanwhile your bank wants the interest payment.
Why is this well-known fact lost in the perpetual shuffle of new businesses? I think the most successful businesses in Aspen have been out of business for so long now, that there are few good models left for new operators to follow. And no, those old successful operations that I refer to didn’t go out of business because they failed to keep up with the times. To the contrary, most of them were so damn successful that the owners got tired of being busy all the time that they sold to the Now generation that appears to be mostly busy running things into the ground. A few examples that come to mind are La Cocina, which was converted into a lien collector; The Crystal Palace, which does business in the pitch-black market; and The Chart House, which has become the Dancing Bear standing still.
Look, we have all been to little towns where the greatest attraction is watching the local schmucks do whatever it is they do. It’s almost always nothing, but locals make doing nothing cool. In fact, there isn’t much worse than heading out on your annual vacation only to run into people with the same color license plates as yours. If I go to San Diego, I want to buy baggies where the surfers do. If I’m in Austin, I want to hear a band where the college kids hang. It goes to follow that if I were in Aspen, I would want to party where the brokers and developers do.
And, where exactly is that? Nowhere, that’s where. That’s the problem. The people that live here are partying, eating and shopping in town less and less and less. Nobody caters to the locals anymore. Even The Steak Pit has upped the ante to get a seat at a table. They gave us the Double Dog as a substitute, but I’m not sure that was a good trade…for them.
But, don’t get me wrong. This is not a demand for more entitlements for those who call this place home and consider that time spent skiing, hiking, biking, and waking each day to beautiful surroundings is paying their dues. The employee housing, the free buses, the bike paths, that’s enough. We don’t need anymore gimmees. This is a business tip.
Businesses need to remember what the formula for success has always been in this town. The cat’s been out of the bag for a long time, but it has gone feral lately because lots of local stores have been ignoring it and now it usually wanders the streets of Glenwood to find what it wants and needs. It’s not only about the visiting fat cats. It’s about the skinny ones that live here, too. There are more of them.
Really it boils down to this: You aren’t a local shop if locals don’t shop there. And, if you’re not a local shop, why would a visitor want to buy anything there? Besides, if you have locals coming into your store regularly, you might even look forward to off-season. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but those are the times of year locals like best.
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