Individuals used to walk by it every day, whether they were just strolling by or on their way to class. They may have thought, “I should check that place out,” and maybe they did.
But one day they walk by and the storefront is empty. No employees work the register and no customers mill around inside. The handwritten sign on the door thanking customers for their support might be the only clue that a store was ever there.
Such is the life of a business in downtown Madison— especially State Street: Here today, gone tomorrow.
But Michelle Somes-Booher, the director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center says the sky is not falling for small businesses on State Street.
“We have a great, robust ecosystem with a lot of younger people who want to try new things,” Somes-Booher said. “Businesses pop up. Sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t.”
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That’s not to say the climate of downtown businesses hasn’t evolved. According to the 2018 State of the Downtown study, the number of downtown businesses has risen from 212 to 405. But over the same amount of time, the number of retail businesses in the downtown area has shrunk. While retail used to account for half of all businesses in the downtown area, it now represents only about 22 percent.
Amy Moore, who owns Little Luxuries on State Street, said she recently has noticed a general decline in the number of brick and mortar retail stores across Madison. Despite recent struggles for the retail industry, Moore said an evolving business can still succeed.
“It takes much more effort to succeed in retail than ever before,” Moore said. “But I think if you’re really setting your numbers, setting your demographic and paying attention to the negotiations that you need to make to be successful, I think you can still continue to succeed.”
Moore remodeled Little Luxuries over the past winter to give the space a more modern feel, she said. She also said she closely monitors the products she puts out on the shelves so that she can quickly increase stock if a new product does well, or liquidate her supply of a product that doesn’t resonate.
Dan Kennelly, manager of the Office of Business Resources for the City of Madison said the city is working to address the change in the downtown’s retail market. Last year, the city implemented a State Street retail grant program which he said provided financing for about 11 businesses undergoing renovation, including Little Luxuries. Kennelly said the allure of State Street is more than just shopping.
“Stores like Little Luxuries, Anthology and Soap Opera are great locally owned businesses with products that are really unique to Madison and experiences that you can’t get anywhere else,” Kennelly said. “If traditional brick and mortar retail is going to survive, that’s how they are going to do it .”
The graying of businesses, Somes-Booher said, is another significant factor behind closing businesses. As the largest living adult population, retiring baby boomers simply don’t have a large enough population to hand their business over to. When the owner of a longstanding business in Madison decides to retire, they may not have a successor to take over operations.
Kennelly said the city is attempting to address this problem through the Co-operative Enterprises for Job Creation and Business Development program, where the city assists existing businesses that are transitioning into employee-owned co-operatives. That way, Kennelly said, if employees are interested in continuing a business after the owner retires, they have the opportunity to do so, even if no line of succession exists.
The importance of small businesses, Somes-Booher said, is the character and unique local charm they bring to the downtown area. They are a big reason why State Street is a huge attraction for visitors.
“You can go to a mall and see everything that you can see at every other town,” Somes-Booher said. “But when you go to an area that really drives small business, it’s unique and special.”
For new startup businesses that come to the SBDC, doing an appropriate amount of planning mitigates the risk for small businesses looking for success in downtown Madison, Somes-Booher said.
Moore said she is paying closer attention to Little Luxuries to assure that her business is staying on the ball. She said her job isn’t easy, but it’s fun and she’s passionate about her work, which makes all the difference.
“It’s a child,” Moore said. “You have to feed it, watch over it and take care of it. So the job never really does stop.”