Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Small shops in small tourist towns

We just returned from a family gathering in Cape Vincent, in the Thousand Islands region of NY and Canada. The towns in the area are small and have a highly seasonal population. One person in a larger town claimed roughly 13,000 residents in summer, and roughly 500 year round - the 2000 Census lists a pop of 1,088 - so that's probably a good guess on the actual year round number.

Wandering through some of the less touristy shops that were more my speed, I noticed a trend. Dual purpose retail. A coffee shop that also does interior design. A tea shop that also sells art prints and apparently manages apartments. It struck home the need to have multiple ways to pull people in if only a few hundred are around all year.

Both of my favorite examples have a web presence, but no real social media outreach that I can spot. Interested customers still really should show up in-person. Perhaps the impetus for the web pages is the prospective tourist, checking out the town before heading up for the summer rush.

But how could this change in a social media environment? The shops could arrange for TweetUps and MeetUps from around the region to happen on the premises, potentially enticing people to remember to stop back when they're in the area next. They could create a virtual group of experts in one of their varied areas of business, so when you go to their shop, you're really reaching out to a much broader community. Or they could link into social charity programs like Kiva to rally the community for a global cause at the shop door.

I'm not sure if any of these are a really spectacular solution. The most obvious step, I would think, to ensuring a steady customer base in a seasonal location would be to sell online - to break the restrictions locale has placed. I didn't get into conversations with these shop-owners about why they had not done this.

What do you think? Are there ways beyond the dual-purpose diversification to bring a steadier stream of business in a seasonal town? Are there social media opportunities - beyond simple web retail - that could keep some of these pleasant, non-chintzy places around, where you know so many have struggled and failed?

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