Bookmark and Share

Originally published in Business People-Vermont in 2004.


Marketplace

by Nancy Wood,
Burlington Business Association

From Cash & Carry to Charge & Click – A World of Difference in 20 Years

Annual sales in Chittenden County exceed $5 billion, generating over $80 million in sales taxes to the state of Vermont. Close to 26 percent of the taxable retail sales occur in Williston, in large part at the big-box stores at Taft Corners. South Burlington accounts for another 22 percent of sales, with heavy concentrations at University Mall on Dorset Street. Burlington, once the retail center of the county, ranks third, with about 21 percent of sales. In 1989, Burlington's share was 44 percent, while Williston's was only 8 percent.

These numbers reflect the changing patterns of shopping and living throughout the county over the last 20 years. The once rural community of Williston has sprouted both residential and commercial growth, while Burlington's population has inched up. Office and shopping complexes have sprung up close to the Interstate 89 interchanges. Residential developments sprawl across the landscape. People have new choices in both the location and types of stores for shopping, if they choose to shop locally. Mail order has been an option for decades for those who prefer to shop from home: The Internet has expanded that choice exponentially.

Let me take you for a walk up the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, and back 20 years in time. That's when I experienced the trials and triumphs of the retail trade. We opened a store on the top block of Church Street in April of 1982 less than a year after the grand opening of the Marketplace. Apple Mountain started out at 32 Church St., in the building now occupied by Bertha Church. Gradually over the next eight years, external pressures and internal repositioning changed it from a clothing store specializing in Levi's jeans into the Vermont specialty foods and products store that now thrives at 30 Church St. under the ownership of Marie Bouffard and Mike Soulia.

Change was as much a part of the retail scene then as it is today. Abernethy's department store, which had served families for decades at 2 Church St., was in the middle of its final going-out-of-business sale. Three men's shops Nate's, Shepard & Hamelle and Michael Kehoe Ltd. were serving the business and leisure needs of local gentlemen. JC Penney was located directly across the street from Apple Mountain, where Borders is today. On the other side of Cherry Street was Woolworth's, which had been everyone's favorite "five and dime." The Woolworth's lunch counter was an institution.

The four blocks of the Church Street Marketplace were peppered with locally owned stores, while the adjacent Burlington Square Mall (now Burlington Town Center) included national retailers. Visionary local merchants had led the charge to build the pedestrian Marketplace, foreseeing the demise of less fortunate downtowns. Hertzel Pasackow of the Mayfair, Pat Robins of McAuliffe's Office Products, Louise Weiner of Magrams and Tom Racine of Bertha Church were a few of the retailers who actively participated in marketing and management decisions for Church Street, while running their stores. As a neophyte at retail, I was lucky to have them as mentors.

Technology was primitive by today's standards in smaller stores like Apple Mountain. In the early '80s, we had electronic cash registers and calculators, but no computers, no bar codes, no accounting software. Sales records and projections were recorded by hand. Cash, checks and credit cards were equally common; credit cards were processed slowly with the hand-operated credit card slider.

Suburban malls had raised customers' expectations for shopping hours seven days a week and six evenings, but local stores on the Marketplace and elsewhere were reluctant to open Sunday or any night except Friday. Banks were just discovering line-organizing techniques, not yet aware that ATMs would soon make lines a memory. Off on the horizon was Wal-Mart, gobbling up the retail market in more than 20 states. By 1985, Wal-Mart was the number one general retailer in the United States, with $8.4 billion in sales, 882 stores and 104,000 associates, including the newest wrinkle in customer service: "people greeters" near the doors in all the stores.

Our experience with Levi Strauss was symbolic of transformations occurring in retail. In 1982 we were one of several specialty stores that sold Levi's Jeans, competing on a relatively even playing field. That changed in 1984 when JC Penney and Sears began to sell them, often as loss leaders to build traffic. They were buying in larger quantities with better terms, and blew us out of the market.

The landscape has changed dramatically since 1984. Both JC Penney and Sears have moved from Burlington to University Mall in South Burlington. Wal-Mart conquered Vermont and resides with Home Depot, Toys 'R Us, Circuit City, Marshall's and others at Taft Corners.

In Burlington, the Church Street Marketplace celebrated its 23rd anniversary with the grand re-opening of the City Hall block newly bricked and refurbished for pedestrians only. Dining and entertainment fill the streets with people late into the night, complementing the traditional retail uses.

National retailers dominate the scene, with Filene's anchoring the Burlington Town Center, and the Marketplace featuring familiar names like Ann Taylor, Borders Books, Banana Republic and more. With an increasing focus on niche markets and customer service, however, local ownership succeeds on and off the Marketplace, especially in ladies' apparel, jewelry, Vermont products, home furnishings and other specialty areas. A few local retailers in sports equipment such as Ski Rack, and toys such as Learning Express continue to buck the trend toward the big nationals.

Growth of big-box retail at Taft Corners in Williston and on Dorset Street in South Burlington continues, but downtowns in Essex Junction and Winooski are also strengthening with redevelopment and marketing. Shoppers increasingly are looking for value in the experience of shopping rather than just price: a national trend is now toward "lifestyle" centers. Vermont's traditional downtown centers provide that variety of experience with fun and food, jobs and residences, all within walking distance of shopping. This offers hope for their continuing health over the next 20 years. •

Nancy Wood is the executive director of the Burlington Business Association, a membership organization founded in 1978 to promote the economic vitality of Burlington. For information about BBA and its members, go to www.bbavt.org.

Originally published in December 2004 Business People-Vermont

Bookmark and Share