Darrell Berkheimer: Mill Street closure an unwise experiment | TheUnion.com

Darrell Berkheimer: Mill Street closure an unwise experiment

With Grass Valley and downtown merchants establishing a permanent Mill Street closure for a two-block pedestrian mall, they are conducting an unwise experiment when shopping attitudes have undergone major changes.

It’s not just a parking issue. Mobility is another — especially in this community where one-third of the population is 60 or older. And some younger folks have mobility issues, as well.

Both parking and mobility are major parts of convenience — one of the three main factors in marketing.

Many of us learned years ago in Marketing 101 that if merchants expect to stay in business, they need to concentrate on meeting customer demands in two of three major areas — price, convenience and service.

Downtown merchants cannot compete with prices elsewhere — such as those offered by big box stores and mail order. So they need to excel in convenience and service — which most Mill Street businesses have been doing in the past.

With regard to convenience, anyone who has studied marketing has heard this chant: “It’s location, location, location.” But Grass Valley and the Mill Street merchants are making location less convenient.

And with the way nationwide shopping attitudes have been changing, they are taking a big chance in experimenting with trimming that convenience.

An Aug. 7 story by The Week magazine refers to “The retail apocalypse” in a report on why retailers are closing stores at an alarming rate. The story refers mostly to big box stores, malls and chain stores. But the reasons behind the closures affect local merchants, as well.

The Week noted major retailers “closed 1,200 stores in 2020, after an already devastating 2019, when more than 9,300 stores closed. Another 80,000 stores — 9 percent of the nation’s total — will close in this ‘retail apocalypse’ over the next five years as e-commerce sales grow,” according to predictions by the financial services company UBS.

In recent history, a couple women or a mother and daughter would go shopping together for hours. They would browse from floor to floor in a department store, visit several shops in a mall, venture to an outlets’ plaza, or shop store-to-store in a downtown district. But that’s not happening anymore. And men never were known for that type of shopping.

Much has changed during recent decades.

The failure of wages to keep pace with costs forced the need for two-income families. As a result, women became more career oriented, and our young adults are getting married later and having fewer children.

All of this has brought an end to the hours of in-store browsing by a huge segment of former shoppers, and subsequently increased the importance of convenience. Instead, browsing now is mostly online.

The Week reports the entire retail sector “has been devastated as consumers have lost the habit of shopping and browsing in person.” Meanwhile, mail order sales have been booming — spurred on even more by the virus pandemic.

All of that raises the question: Is this a wise time to reduce access to shops on Mill Street? And especially with our aging Nevada County population?

I’ve just turned 80, and the majority of my friends are retirees. Many of us are losing a little less mobility with each passing year. Actually, we need to walk more; but many of us don’t, and some won’t.

Several have told me they simply won’t shop on Mill Street if they can’t park in front or behind. Most observed they could usually find parking if they went when the stores were opening in the morning. And a couple others noted they often would spot someone leaving a parking space during a second pass through.

The Mill Street closure last year was necessary because the first two vaccines were not widely available until early this year. But that’s not the situation this year.

Merchants rely on fourth-quarter sales to provide much of their profit for the year. I suspect the closure will take a toll on those profits, sending them lower than 2019.

Additional parking nearly three blocks away will do little to help unless a shuttle service is offered.

Since the city and Mill Street merchants appear to be adamant about the closure, I believe they need to give serious thought to a shuttle service with a couple of golf carts two or three days each week, with plenty of publicity to promote the service.

I suspect it could be a relatively inexpensive service after the original cost of the golf carts. The city would need to assign an employee to oversee the service, and I think the city could recruit volunteers for three- to four-hour shifts to operate the mobility carts eight or nine hours on two or three days weekly. FREED might be a source for volunteers.

Common sense tells me that if you trim convenience one way, you better find another means of compensating for it. And thus far I haven’t heard of any good proposal to do so.

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. He has eight books available through Amazon. His sixth, “Essays from The Golden Throne,” includes 60 columns published by The Union, plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at mtmrnut@yahoo.com.

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