MEDC offers winter strategies to keep the customers coming

Downtowns and their patrons will have to embrace the cold this winter, says Main Street Specialist Joe Frost: “We have to change our attitude about winter. We live in a beautiful state that’s beautiful in each of its seasons.” Photo by Josh Vanderhaar.

Three more months of wintry weather is a daunting prospect for many businesses and downtowns as they strategize on how to keep doors open during COVID-19 restrictions.

It’s hard enough to do business during good weather in a pandemic, but luring people out into cold weather is yet another hurdle that could threaten closure for some stores and restaurants.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation – or MEDC – has released a COVID-19 Winter Strategies resource guide packed with ideas for events and design ideas for catering to customers outdoors.

“This guidebook provides creative ideas and resources for communities that will help them make the most of winter outdoor activity opportunities, making it more fun and safe to be outside and bolstering the community’s ability to retain and attract new businesses and residents,” said MEDC Senior Vice President of Community Development Michele Wildman.

Or as her Michigan Main Street colleague Joe Frost puts it: “Embrace the cold!”

Anyone who owns an outdoor sporting goods store can tell you they’ve had a very good sales year. The pandemic has created a surge of interest in outdoor recreation. And it’s driven people to outdoor restaurant patios and public spaces. But will that be the case when temperatures drop below 40?

Convincing Michiganders to bundle up and get out and shop is a must, Frost says. “We have to change our attitude about winter. We live in a beautiful state that’s beautiful in each of its seasons. We need our retailers, businesses and restaurateurs to message, ‘It’s winter and we’re going to embrace that winter.’”

That means offering seasonal changes to menus and product offerings, making winter patios hospitable and working with your city and downtown to ensure that snow management is done smartly, to allow for curbside delivery and walkability.

Municipalities play a big role in how well a community responds to wintertime commerce. The guide suggests job No. 1 is setting up a local winter strategies task force.

“A key takeaway is that as a municipality, you need to bring together a group of stakeholders, figure out what your assets are in terms of season change and be able to make those shifts for your businesses,” Frost says. “Cut the red tape on the zoning side and manage snow removal. We can make it fun but at end of day we need to make it efficient.”

Downtowns should promote appropriate winter attire, so customers will be comfortable. Selling branded blankets, scarves and hats gets the message across in a fun way. As the guide says, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”

Consider promoting a large shopping event, but with restrictions. The guide suggests:
• Staging large events over a longer period of time;
• Encouraging staggered attendance by offering specials based on first letter of first or last name on different days;
• Spreading out events over larger areas (i.e. extended parade routes, for example);
• Using VIP, invite-only and RSVP events and sub-events that help to control the number of attendees at any given time.

Leigh Young, another Michigan Main Street specialist, advises that retailers need to get online to increase their audience. She and Frost acknowledge that all this will take innovation, but it’s the kind that will carry forward, beyond the pandemic.

“Once the holidays are over, we’re in the dead zone of January, February and March,” Young notes. “The challenge is, what creative things can retailers do to expand into the winter season?”

Tips from the Michigan Main Street specialists

Here are ways you make your commercial district more inviting in winter to help bring in sales.

  • Develop pop-up opportunities for holiday shopping, such as outdoor sidewalk sales and/or a winter market.
  • Use a downtown public space, open area, or underutilized parking lot for food trucks and vendors.
  • Coordinate business hours for winter operations.
  • Extend the season of your farmers market or create opportunities for a pop-up winter market.
  • Consider themed restaurant/pub crawl style events that can take place outdoors.
  • Consider working with property owners to use large underutilized or vacant buildings to hold indoor events using social distancing and safety precautions.
  • Enhance connectivity to existing winter attractions and develop partnerships with them, perhaps by offering visitors discount cards for downtown businesses.
  • Create a winter activity guide for downtown highlighting attractions, special retail and dining experiences, outdoor patios, outdoor markets and other offerings.