To The Editor,
I read the article about rebranding Woodstock and was mystified that Woodstock, once again, seems to be trying to solve the problems of it’s business community by spending tax dollars.
For more than half a century I have been a customer of retailers in the town of Woodstock. I remember buying fruits and vegetables in a shop which is now part of Bentley’s. I remember when my mother bought all her “good” clothes at Morgan-Ballou. I remember when Fred Doubleday married my mother to my stepfather and sold her a pair of shoes on the way out the door. Businesses, no matter how good they are, come and go. Times change.
For more that a quarter of a century I have made my living as a retailer in the town of Woodstock. My store is not in the village but, like all retailers, I have been affected by economic trends, the aging of the baby boom generation and changes in how people see themselves as consumers. In addition, I was severely impacted by Tropical Storm Irene which is an economic consideration peculiar to our community. 2011, the year of Irene, was the second worst year my business has ever had and we had to think very hard before we made the commitment to continue. On the other hand, after working hard to reinvent ourselves after Irene, 2012 was our second best year ever and we believe that the coming year shows even more promise. This is not an accident.
We may not be in the village but we have one very important thing in common with the village retailers. We are a shopping destination. People actively decide that they want to shop in our store. We don’t carry milk or bread or anything else people need to survive. We carry things they want. When people are not forced by need to shop with you it becomes very important to offer them a reason to shop with you. You have to make that decision easy or they will shop somewhere else where it is easy… like the Internet.
For all the discussion, Woodstock remains a viable destination for retail shopping. Woodstock attracts thousands of tourists and potential shoppers every year. There are some lovely stores and shops in the village and people from all over constantly talk about how much they enjoy Woodstock. To me, that means the town has successfully branded itself. People know Woodstock. They have a generally favorable perception of Woodstock and they come here expecting to enjoy it and often return. No one hates Woodstock. Other than a few locals frustrated by tourist weekend parking, everyone loves Woodstock.
So… why don’t people leave more money behind when they go home?
Once upon a time Woodstock was a regular Vermont village where local people shopped for everything they needed locally. A few shops also carried specialty items aimed at the tourist trade and most shops had some “high end” items aimed at the summer folk. But, overall, there were enough local customers, as well as tourists, shopping for what they needed to sustain the businesses. Times change. Killington, which used to be a ski area, has become a true resort offering every imaginable thing that people could want in order to keep as many dollars on the mountain as possible. Fewer folks travel to Woodstock as a result. As shopping centers in West Lebanon and Rutland have grown, fewer people see Woodstock as a place to shop for necessities. As a consequence most of the shops now sell, as I do, things people want.
Woodstock has chosen, wisely I believe, to keep the character of the village as traditional as possible without chain stores and outlet malls taking over as has happened in Manchester, Vermont. But it has also become a village whose life blood depends on tourists. The thing about selling to tourists is that they do not have the same buying patterns as local people. Tourists are here to enjoy themselves. They are not worrying about getting to work on time or what they are going to make for dinner. They get up later in the morning unless they have a planned activity and they tend to stay out later in the evening to take advantage of every possible way to enjoy their visit. They come on weekends and during vacation and holiday weeks. They are weather sensitive and often look for something to do on rainy summer days or frigid winter days. They travel in pairs or sometimes in packs but rarely alone. They expect to find things they want to buy and come prepared to buy them.
But here’s the thing… If you are not standing in your store with the door open and the lights on waiting to serve them with a smile when they walk in you won’t sell them a darn thing. My husband and I sometimes get away for a day or two and we go to other tourist towns in New England quite often. If we see something we love in a store window we go in. If they are not open we do not come back the next day. We go on to the next thing. Woodstock needs to be open and welcoming when the tourists want to buy. If that means being open in the evenings when people are arriving in town or patronizing the restaurants, then they need to do that. If it means being open on Sundays when people are looking for those last few hours of enjoyment before they head home, then they need to do that. I can assure you that I have worked every weekend and most summer evenings for the last 28 years. But, in addition to being on the same schedule as the customers, Woodstock needs to welcome the customers. They need to do as good a job every day as they do for the Wassail celebration. They need to plan more activities that draw people through the village like “Where’s Waldo?” did during Bookstock. And they need to make sure that the village business community lives up to the image of a timeless and charming Woodstock that people want to believe in. I believe that, if the merchants in Woodstock want to succeed, they have every opportunity to do so. A beautiful village that remains well loved by generations of visitors, a concerned local population of merchants and business owners and a well known and thought of “brand” should be a recipe for success.
Does Woodstock need to spend $50,000 to rebrand itself? I find it hard to think of a better brand than the one they have. Do they need to spend $50,000 to have someone tell the merchants how to take advantage of what Woodstock has in order to be successful? The information provided might be very interesting. But, in the end, it will be up to the merchants and businesses in the village to decide what they are going to do and no amount of money can guarantee success.
Laura H. Spittle
The Vermont Horse Country Store, South Woodstock
(Editor’s note: This letter did not run in the Feb. 28 edition due to space.)