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Tennessee Town Lures Shoppers from Malls

Small retailers across the United States are facing the same challenge: competition from shopping malls and chain stores. But, in downtown Dickson, Tennessee, a group of retail merchants have banded together to win back their customers who have been attracted to shopping areas in the neighboring big city.

Dickson is a typical small American city. It has quiet residential areas and a nice little downtown that was once a thriving retail center. But according to David Hamilton, President of Dickson's Chamber of Commerce, highway construction over the past several years changed that. "The traffic that years ago went through downtown Dickson and created all the business now is shifted," he says. "And the traffic is more toward the interstate. Our growth is going south to route I-40 and a lot of the commercial corridors are basically out that directions."

Being just 65 kilometers away from a big city like Nashville, Mr. Hamilton says, presents another challenge to Dickson's downtown shopping area. "Because we're so close to Nashville, and because so many people work in Nashville," he says, "when they think about shopping, they think of going to Nashville malls."

But small business owners in downtown Dickson didn't give up. Instead, they decided to fight back. More than 40 of them founded the Retail Merchants Association of Downtown Dickson. Jerry Williams, who owns a wallpaper and paint store, was elected president. "Everybody is really excited about it," he says. "We're just promoting the downtown area and everybody can see how if we can promote the downtown area and get people coming back to downtown, that's going to help our business as well."

Members of the new association are committed to success; they pay monthly dues and meet periodically to suggest and discuss creative ways of attracting more shoppers to downtown. Mr. Williams says one idea is creating events modeled on the annual Christmas parade through the downtown area that attracts a large number of city residents. "We create just a big party atmosphere in downtown," he says. "We're going to start having 4 big parties a year downtown that's for the most part free and open to public just to make it a good place for people to get used to coming to. We're also looking at having what we call 'Friday Night Lights,' where our business will stay open late on Friday night and we're going to have a band playing in the little small park we have downtown."

Free refreshments and give-aways will be part of these regular events. Mr. Williams says the group is also planning to beautify the downtown area with plants and paint. "We've just commissioned our Community Arts Development Organization to come in and paint a big mural on one of our walls," he says. "We feel this is going to attract a lot of attention."

Impatiens, marigolds and petunias, planted in painted flowerpots, add lively colors along the sidewalks. Antique-store owner, Janie Farmer, says such touches have made her hopeful that the merchants will achieve their goals. "I want people to come in downtown," she says. "I want people to enjoy being here when they come in. I want them to see smiling faces in my store and in all the others too."

Though it might seem hard to compete with big chain stores, Ms. Farmer says, small retailers have an advantage. They have a personal approach in serving customers. "I can call a lot of my customers by name when they come in from the door, or at least know they have been here," she says. "Some of them I know their families, of course I don't know them all, but the repeat customers. I know even somebody who only comes in because they are traveling once a year. Many times I remember them."

Chamber of Commerce president David Hamilton agrees. He says retailers in his city serve customers well, and customers in return, should support them by shopping in their stores. "These people downtown are neighbors, they are friends," he says. "They go to the churches with us and they are going to treat us like that. They are going to work out issues that you might have with the product you buy. They are going to go the extra mile to help you and make you satisfied. You are not going to be just a number, a credit card to them. You're going to be a customer with a name and a face."

The downtown area is the heart of a city. And members of Dickson's new Retail Merchants Association are determined to work together to keep the heart beating -- to revitalize downtown Dickson so it is once again a busy, welcoming place for people to come and shop.