It’s a sweltering Thursday on a June evening in central Tempe, and the sidewalks along College Avenue are mostly bare.
But inside one retailer – known more for its local, boutique offerings, accessories and selection of Tom’s shoes – a small crowd has gathered for an open mic night.
Performance art in a retail space? That isn’t the half of it.
Across the Valley, locally-owned small business owners are turning to alternative techniques and methods to drum up business not just throughout the quiet summer months, but throughout the year.
Lacking the massive advertising budgets of their large corporate rivals, these businesses rely on word-of-mouth, social media and ideas that step outside the circle of their normal clientele to get people through the door.
Whether visitors buy anything or not during these events is typically irrelevant.
“It’s a different way of marketing that isn’t an ad in the paper,” said Julie Kent of the open mic night – and the other events she throws – at Here on the Corner, the Tempe boutique she owns. “And even though I’m providing food and drinks, and they may not be buying anything, people remember it.”
And, the theory in retail goes: if people don’t even know of you, they can’t think to shop you during the make-or-break-months in the retail world: November and December.
Besides the open mic nights, Kent hosts local designer nights, participates in the newly organized downtown Tempe Final Fridays (last month she hosted a kids art night) and throws tailgate parties, complete with grilled food, during home Arizona State University football games.
Kentalso partners with nonprofits, hosting sales during certain time periods where a certain percentage of the proceeds benefit a selected charity.
The key theme here: collaboration. The nonprofit directs new customers Kent’s way; in return the nonprofit gets some much needed fundraising.
Indeed, collaborative efforts are springing up across the Valley.
At Practical Art in uptown Phoenix, locally-based nonprofit The Bergamot Institute hosts kids art classes every Tuesday. The classes give the institute, which is dedicated to “supporting the creative work of local artists of all ages by providing work space and supplies to those who would otherwise not have access to such,” a public place to spread their message; and a way to fundraise (Practical Art turns the proceeds from each 90-minute class back over to the institute).
For Practical Art, it brings in new clientele – the kids, and, more importantly, their parents.
Classes are a significant part of the alternate activities at Practical Art, which, as the name implies, sells practical household items that are also one-of-a-kind, often locally made works of art – think anything from forks and knives, to serving trays and furniture.
The store hosts a happy hour called Tipsy Tuesday on the second Tuesday of each month, Socrate’s Café – an idea discussion group, a poetry reading, a book club and a pie social every third Friday. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“All of this for us is building towards the holiday season,” said Lisa Olson, co-owner of Practical Art, echoing an idea many business owners shared. “It’s the idea of being in the forefront of people’s mind. You may come all year and you may never spend any money, but you’ve seen what we have to offer and when you need one of those kinds of things, you came and you saw it, and, hopefully, you come back.”
This idea of collaboration and creative thinking is something that Local First Arizona, a trade, lobbying and support organization for Arizona-based businesses, really emphasizes, said Kimber Lanning, the organization’s founder and director.
“The businesses that are going to survive are the ones that are the quickest on their feet,” Lanning said. “The ones that are creative on their feet.”
In a recent interview, Lanning runs through a bunch of collaborations between businesses that stick out in her mind: a partnership between Changing Hands Bookstore and retailer Duck and Decanter to combine a book signing with wine from local wineries; the way the businesses at Medlock Plaza (a shopping center near Camelback Road and Central Avenue) market together; even a jeweler she heard of who recently arranged to place a jewelry display case in the waiting area of a popular restaurant, as ways that small businesses can work together.
“If you look at my own personal history,” Lanning said, “this is my mantra; trying to create synergy.”
Synergy comes naturally at downtown Phoenix’s Icehouse – a historic Phoenix building that dates back to 1920 when it began as a plant manufacturing 300-pound blocks of ice that were used, primarily, to transport perishables by train to the eastern US.
Here, the Hestenes family, the owners, and executive director Peter Conley, have been creating a kind of urban dreamscape.
While the venue is known primarily by the public as an entertainment venue – think concerts, performances, weddings and corporate functions – the cavernous facility is actually home to a thriving lattice work of arts spaces, galleries, studios and avant-garde installations. It aims to promote “the Arts and humanitarian causes” especially ones “that promote health, compassion and understanding for individuals struggling with serious mental or physical illness.”
Like any living project, the Icehouse is constantly evolving.
The most recent evolution involves the opening of two new spaces, the Urbane Recycler and Quiet Mind Tea & No Frills Coffee Bar. At its core, Conley said, these spaces are about bringing greater awareness to the Icehouse.
“We’re right here in the middle of the city,” Conley said, while standing on the front porch outside the tea and coffeehouse. “And so many people who pass by are not aware of us.”
Indeed, Icehouse is surrounded by several high traffic areas, ones that draw numerous people who might not be all that familiar with the downtown Phoenix area, most notably a parking garage used by visitors and jurors at Maricopa County Superior Court.
While he talks about his hope for the space – Conley’s focus for Quiet Mind is more on tea than coffee (he believes in its healing benefits) – Conley points to another renovation taking place: the slow buildout of I.C.E., otherwise known as the Inner City Eden.
I.C.E. is an urban garden, being developed in phases. The idea for this – to provide a quiet, green space amid the harsh, functional structures that surround the Icehouse.
But Conley, like many business owners and managers, says it’s not just a matter of “build it and they will come.”
“My biggest challenge,” Conley said, “is getting outside myself, getting used to using things like Facebook and Twitter to spread the word.”
Other business owners interviewed for this story shared similar sentiments – of having to get up-to-date with, or get comfortable with social media and other “new” styles of communicating with customers.
“My problem,” Kent, of Here on the Corner, said, “is just trying to get the word out.”
Other boutique and small-business owners such as Heather Hill, of Hill Creative Boutique, have twisted the traditional retail space model to fit their unique needs.
Hill, a professional photographer, opened her boutique in March at 707 S. Forest Drive, just north of University Drive in Tempe. The small space serves three purposes: as a sort of home base for Hill’s many endeavors, as a photo studio and as a boutique.
The boutique specializes in rotating exhibits. During the grand opening, works by Nikki Green Caprara – a local designer who specializes in furniture redesign – were displayed. Artwork focusing on birds lined the walls.
To gather attention during her opening months, Hill thought big. During Tempe’s Final Friday in May, she had a dance floor installed in the small parking lot and brought in dancers to perform in the open air.
And, rather than deal with the fickle customers of the summer, Hill said she has opted to wait the summer out, opening sporadically and by appointment.
The summer can be brutal on retailers, said Kent, observing that this summer business “is off by more than half, for sure.”
But there can be a positive lining, Olson said.
During the fall, winter and spring months, the Phoenix metro is literally bursting with things to do, from major outdoor festivals, to hiking, biking and sports opportunities, to family events, picnics and other events that take advantage of the time frame’s beautiful weather.
In the summer, however, there isn’t much going on.
“Something that we definitely noticed,” Olson said, “is that during the summer everybody goes into hibernation. But if you provide things for people to do, they come in larger numbers.”