Lenox Needs a New Retail Strategy
As an economist and a resident of Lenox, I recognize that the town depends on a vibrant retail base. But ever since the global depression of 2008, the Town’s retail sector has been in decline. In what follows, I trace what happened and what can be done to remedy the problems.
Depression, Not Recession
Many took what happened in 2008 as a recession, something that would only last a couple of years. What happened in 2008 was not just another recession: it was a global depression. Keep in mind that in the case of the last depression (1929), it took World War II to get the country back to full employment.
So what has happened in the Southern Berkshires since 2008? I wish I could provide detailed data on this question, but it is not available. But I have asked around and here is what I have found out:
- The major entertainment venues (Tanglewood, various theaters and dance) have come back;
- The Norman Rockwell Museum has at least not lost visitors;
- Lenox’s 2 major health centers (Canyon Ranch and Kripalu) are doing well;
- Restaurants are doing well.
But there is a difference: retail has not recovered. People are coming to The Berkshires for the venues mentioned above, they eat in our restaurants, but they are not spending as much money in the retail stores. For evidence on this, I did “storefront” surveys of both Lenox and Great Barrington late last fall. The results for Lenox are set forth in the following table:
In essence, they show there are 9 storefront locations without tenants, or 11.5% of the Town’s storefronts. A similar result was found in Great Barrington: 10.6% of all storefronts without tenants.
And what makes the Lenox result even more troubling is that I know of three more vendors that will close their doors shortly.
So What Happened?
- Depression Effects: Some vendors were really hurting in the 2009-11 period. But they borrowed money and held on thinking there would soon be a recovery. That has not happened and they cannot hang on.
- Consumption Pattern Changes: Recessions/depressions always accelerate things already happening, and the country is in the process of buying more and more on the web. And demographics will accelerate this pattern – younger people buy far more on the web than older people.
What Can Be Done?
There are a number of specific things that can be done. But most importantly, the Town has to adopt a new strategy. Instead of promoting high-end shops in town that cater primarily to visitors, the Town should do more to promote retail that caters to year-round residents. What do I have in mind? How about a CVS, a gas pump/convenience store like Stewart’s, and a mini-Staples. And how about a small fine arts cinema?
Rhinebeck is a town that does this quite successfully. It makes sure its vendors tone down their usual images.
Beyond this change in perspective, I offer the following specifics:
- The tour buses pass by our town on their way to Tanglewood, Rockwell Museum, etc. The Town should contact the tour bus companies to get them to add a stop in the town. It would be a great help if our police assisted them in finding places their buses could park for an hour or so.
- We need an outdoor kiosk in the downtown area promoting town stores, events, etc. Lee, Great Barrington, and Stockbridge have kiosks. Tanglewood should also be asked if we could set up a “Lenox” kiosk on their property.
- Aside from the Canyon Ranch and Kripalu health facilities, Lenox is an excellent starting point for hiking, biking, snowshoeing and other outdoor activities. Many visitors do not know about the 1500 acre Kennedy Park that hooks into other mountain hiking trails. I know the Lenox Chamber is considering a hiking map pamphlet: good idea!
- Restaurants – we could use more. We have Frankie’s (Italian), the Italian Steak House and The Olde Heritage Tavern with distinct styles. We then have a group that can be lumped together as “up-scale” US: Alta, Zinc, Church Street, Nudel, Table Six, Gateway and Firefly. We could use an Asian and possibly a Mexican restaurant.