SBDC Market Analysis Provides Wealth Of Consumer Information

Published 3:31 pm Tuesday, August 9, 2011

FARMVILLE – Finding out what visitors to Farmville think of the town was a major component of the recently-published market analysis prepared by the Longwood Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that also surveyed residents and business owners.

The SBDC trained Longwood University students to interview visiting shoppers on Saturdays to discover their reaction to the community in order to complement the online survey mainly completed by residents.

“Most people coming from out of town look at Farmville and say, 'Gee, this is a wonderful downtown. It's a nice place. Everybody's friendly,'” states Sheri McGuire, Executive Director of the Longwood University SBDC Network, recounting the findings.

More good news is that parking isn't really a major issue for most people, it just seems to be.

But business hours are.

Virtually everyone surveyed wants to be able to shop downtown after 5 p.m.

And visitors, meanwhile, want to know what else there is to do in Farmville during their visit.

The survey results reflect favorably on Farmville and its business community because even what seem to be criticisms are based on wanting to find more ways to enjoy their Farmville experience.

“What they saw that was missing,” Ms. McGuire said, elaborating on the views of those coming to Farmville from out of town, “was other information about what to do, like 'Where else can I go eat? What else is here?' So that started a conversation about do we really have a marketing problem, too? What if we were to get all of the businesses in town, as well as the tourism office and the chamber, to work together on systematic data collection from visitors that come in….and help reach those people that are already coming to town who want a reason to come back and they want to learn more about what to do while they're here, to get more bang for the buck while they're here.”

The survey responses reveal that among a number of respondents there are some gaps in the retail menu. People want more food choices. They want more variety in retail downtown. But there's an opportunity to capitalize on people that are satisfied who want to come back for more, want to learn what's here.

The post-5 p.m. shopping hours?

“Everybody wants to have an opportunity to shop after 5. Even if we could just decide amongst the business community certain days where there would be extended hours, and publicize that,” Ms. McGuire said in an interview on Thursday, “I think that might bring more traffic downtown. Maybe coordination with First Fridays, other things-again, another event that brings people into town.”

But those events that bring people to town are not necessarily appreciated by every business owner.

Something that “jumped out at us,” Ms. McGuire said, “was the fact there were some positive and some negative sentiment about events in town. The Heart of Virginia Festival, for instance. There are a lot of retailers that will just say 'I'm better off closing my doors rather than try to stay open while Main Street is blocked off,'” she notes.

But others see opportunities left unclaimed and uncapitalized.

“I think with some planning and coordination maybe there's some things that all of these groups and the merchants can do,” she said, “to bring business into the local businesses.”

Learn, for example, “how other communities can capitalize on festivals…Maybe we can get the conversation going about improving that perception. There are things that everyone can benefit from with that many people coming to town…That's another thing we're going to work on.”

The regular cycle of events at Hampden-Sydney College and Longwood University, both sporting and cultural, can also be approached more opportunistically by the business community, she believes.

“There's definitely a market there that's not totally being capitalized and I think communication and just coordination-that's one of the big themes that kept coming up. These things are happening,” she said, so “how do we get them together in a positive way?

“The important thing to us,” Ms. McGuire continued, “is to make this data available to people who want to look at business opportunities. It's there. It's free. It's on the web…Anyone can take it and use it.”

One of the things that might be unexpected is the lack of genuine concern about parking among those responding to the survey.

“That was another surprise. It seemed to me that whether or not they were visitors or people living here that, yes, it's a perceived problem. Parking could be improved. But then you ask the next question 'How far away did you park to get to your destination?' and most say 'within a block. I was able to park in the street or in a municipal lot.' So I think they hear parking come up so many times that it just breeds its own conversation.”

More a perception among shoppers than reality.

But if consumers find themselves walking a block or two past downtown stores to get to their shopping destination, how is that a bad thing for all those other stores which might find that person window shopping and then walking through the door?

“And, really, it's a benefit to get people walking through downtown, when you think about it…It's a strategy,” Ms. McGuire said, now smiling. “It could be a good marketing strategy-walk this way.”

The study was begun as a way for the SBDC to support the Downtown Farmville initiative. Among its goals were establishing the trade area for Farmville, the perceptions of visitors, what types of businesses should be recruited, what activities and events could assist business development and the best means to promote those events.

“They were looking at: what do we need downtown? How do we revitalize things?” Ms. McGuire explained. “And at the same time we were looking at the Main Street model, which included four committees, one of which was economic restructuring, which kind of fit with those questions.”

When most towns get in the Virginia Main Street Program-and Farmville has applied for admission in 2012-and they start looking at economic restructuring, the first step is, typically, Ms. McGuire notes, “a market study to answer these questions about who's coming to town? Who's not coming to town? When they come what are they looking for? What are they not getting? What can we do to better serve the students that are residents here? Are they even thinking about coming downtown? A lot of questions that we looked at answering.”

The survey was conducted from November through April and combined several good models successfully used by other communities to look at market demands, according to Ms. McGuire.

“So we started with the online survey project, which was the easiest thing to start with,” she said, and there were 1,217 responses from the initial online survey. The online survey was aided by merchants, who were given invitation cards to provide to their customers, promoting the online survey and how to participate.

“Really, really good,” was how Ms. McGuire described the volume of online participants.

Most of those, over 60 percent of the 1,217, were from in town, individuals already living in the Farmville community.

“I think they were probably more interested in completing the survey,” Ms. McGuire surmises, “because they've bought into the concept. They want to improve where they live.”

That took care of involving residents in the marketing survey, but that left another key component yet undone.

“Our next question was how do we get the people who are just shopping in town and leaving and going somewhere else. So we added the intercept survey component. We got students from the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity to help us,” Ms. McGuire explained. “We trained them on Saturdays and took them downtown and had them ask some of the same questions that were in the electronic survey but some more detail about their impressions and whether they had a good experience and what do they like about Farmville.”

The students, themselves, are part of a huge customer/potential customer base and students responding to the survey were “real positive about downtown being accessible,” Ms. McGuire said.

With student discretionary spending estimated at $361 a month, there are millions of dollars during the nine-month academic year that can be attracted into the local economy.

“The students are more interested in food and entertainment and reasons to hang out together,” Ms. McGuire said, “so if we can find some business opportunities, we need someone to serve that niche downtown, that would be awesome.

“They want to live downtown, by the way,” she said of students.

As for the business owners, they expressed optimism regarding the local economy.

“They had a lot of positive things to say about the economy hopefully being on the way back up,” Ms. McGuire said, noting entrepreneurs pointed to rising retail sales. “So that's a positive finding there.”

While working to attract the increased retail variety consumers are hoping for, in addition to post-5 p.m. hours, Ms. McGuire stressed that “one of the most important things to remember is how we support the existing businesses that are where-what can they get out as far as additional products and services…They're probably in a better position, more so than a start-up business, to help fill these voids” cited by the consumer surveys.

With High Bridge Trail State Park fully opening next year, adding High Bridge, itself, Ms. McGuire believes “there's going to be a lot of opportunity for people to cater to that.” Also increasing retail variety.

The market survey report provides a wealth of information and she believes “the important thing to us is to make this data available to people who want to look at business opportunities. It's there. It's free. It's on the web…Anyone can take it and use it.

“All in all there were not a whole lot of things that jumped out and grabbed you as a total surprise,” Ms. McGuire continued, “but I think having (the consumer wants information) actually down on paper…is good, in any case, because someone going into business can feel more comfortable that there's data to support them doing that.

“We're going to use (the data) in the economic research committee for downtown. We're going to look at it pretty hard.

“It's just a matter of trying to find a way to get everybody,” she said, “on the same page.”

Or pages, given the breadth and depth of the survey.

“We've got something at the table to look at together and say 'This is what we need to do' and hopefully everyone can see eye to eye and communicate,” Ms. McGuire said, “and go in the same direction.”

The Data

The survey data resides in a database at the SBDC and “we have the ability, without revealing identity of respondents, to cross tabulate questions on spending habits with demographics, which we have already done for some clients…In other words, if someone were to want to open a restaurant,” Ms. McGuire pointed out, “we know from the survey how much on average people are spending dining out in any particular setting-Farmville or otherwise.

“We can then compare this to the information given on household income and other demographics to help a client understand whether the local market will support that particular type of business. This is a very important resource for business planning purposes, and we hope people will make use of it. Combined with database subscriptions to ESRI,” she noted, “we have very helpful information about local spending and market potential for many different businesses.”

Additional Survey Findings

Consumers, most of whom live in the community, shop out of town, in general, for variety and extended hours.

The overall environment of downtown meets or exceeds consumer expectations, with the exception of variety, shopping hours, parking and green space.

The top consumer choices for new businesses are ice cream, kitchen supply/gourmet grocery, and a butcher shop.

Visitors to the area are very positive on the current offerings downtown, though they want more information on what is available.

Forty-seven percent of business owners say their business has improved.

Half of the business owners have upgraded their products or services.

Forty-one percent have changed or increased their marketing efforts.

And 61 percent plan to expand over the next year.

Businesses want to see development of river access, downtown housing, and additional training opportunities in marketing and e-commerce.

Among those completing the online survey, 33.3 percent lived in Prince Edward, 33.3 percent lived in Farmville, with Cumberland, at 6.2 percent, and Buckingham, with 3.4 percent, being next.

Over 37 percent were Longwood University students and 26.2 percent were LU faculty or staff; 30 percent were not affiliated with either LU or H-SC.

Nearly 10 percent of the online survey participants said they shop downtown more than once a week, 13.7 percent said once a week, 16.6 percent said twice a month, 18.1 percent said once a month, 33.1 percent said once every few months, and nine percent said never.

Forty percent of them said they shop elsewhere in Farmville more than once a week and 31.4 percent said they did so once a week.

Less than one percent said they shop in Lynchburg more than once a week and only two percent said they did so once a week, with 14.8 percent saying they did so once a month and 41.3 percent saying they did once every few months.

The percentages were slightly higher for Richmond, with 3.9 percent saying they shopped in Richmond more than once a week, 5.1 percent once a week, 13.4 percent twice a month, 19.6 percent once a month and 41.3 percent once every few months.

Over 41 percent said they never shop in Lynchburg and 16.6 percent said they never shop in Richmond.

A significant number of respondents said that the accessibility of downtown played a large role in their decision to shop there.

More than 50 percent said they'd prefer to shop downtown after 5 p.m. on Monday-Friday.

Asked what three community assets they would most like to see developed or enhanced, 47.9 percent said river access for rafting, canoeing or kayaking, 40.8 said a walking trail, 27.9 percent said downtown housing, 27.7 percent said a bike path, 26.8 percent said Wilck's Lake, 22.7 percent said sports facilities, 21.8 percent said playgrounds, 21.4 percent said expanded green space, and 18.2 percent said guided/historic tours.

Asked about which media they read or listen to on a regular basis, 51.4 percent said The Farmville Herald, 37.7 percent said The Rotunda, 33.4 percent said WFLO, 18.9 percent said WMLU (LU radio), 18.2 percent said WVHL, 8.5 percent said The Southside Messenger, 7.5 percent said The Hampden-Sydney Tiger, 6.7 percent said WXJK, and 3.6 percent said The Crewe Burkeville Journal.

Questioned on the four businesses they'd like to see added to downtown Farmville, 51.8 percent said an ice cream parlor, 37.5 percent said entertainment, 29.4 percent said an arts/crafts store, 22.1 percent said a grocery store, 20.9 percent said outdoor adventure/recreation, and 20.5 percent said sporting goods, with 19.1 percent saying a butcher and another 19.1 percent saying a consignment shop.

Among the 385 individuals interviewed by students while in Farmville shopping, 21.8 percent said downtown shopping brought them to Farmville, 17.7 said they had come to a restaurant, 10.9 percent said Wal-Mart, 9.6 percent said to visit family or friends, 9.1 percent said for grocery shopping, 7.5 percent said other retail shopping, 6.8 percent said Green Front, 4.7 percent said work, and 4.2 percent said Lowe's.

Among business owners asked which media they use to advertise, 68.1 percent said The Farmville Herald, 54.2 percent said WFLO, 34.7 percent said WVHL, 15.3 percent said The Southside Messenger, and 8.3 percent said The Crewe Burkeville Journal and 8.3 percent said The Courier Record, and 6.9 percent said WXJK.