Is there a more brutal business than retailing?
Hamilton merchants have fought the good fight for consumer dollars for many a year now. In the ’80s and ’90s, the town’s Main Street mom-and-pops made the transition from Old West to New as more and more strangers began riding into town looking for something a little different, a little more upscale, just a bit yuppier.
Merchants quickly adapted. Out went the used appliance shop on Main; in came the imported rug store. Out with the propane supplier, in with the French wines and English cheeses.
Then the “big box,” in the form of Kmart, made its appearance on the always-developing strip on the town’s north side. And lately, Highway 93, that pathway to the shopping Mecca known as Missoula, got wider in places and easier and safer to travel.
The Internet, too, has had enough impact on retailing that independent booksellers like Chapter One Books in Hamilton have been forced to band together and promote themselves nationwide.
And now, it’s Mother Nature that has done a number on downtown retailers.
The fire season of 2000 left many a Bitterrooter with considerably less disposable income than usual this Christmas season, according to Diane Wolf, executive director of the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Wolf contacted downtown retailers—all mom-and-pops—to find out how the Christmas season treated them. Every merchant reported that sales were down this year, compared to last year. “With the fires a lot of people lost a few months of income. No disposable income [this year],” she says.
Though end-of-the-year figures aren’t in yet, Wolf says downtown merchants are reporting a roughly 10 percent decline in Christmas sales this year.
Wolf says she can’t prove it, but she suspects that Bitterrooters who typically do most or at least some of their Christmas shopping in Missoula probably didn’t this year: “I would say if we were down, Missoula was probably down too.”
Despite the slump in sales, Wolf says most merchants expected it and took it in stride. The retailers she spoke with didn’t seem depressed or upset. “I didn’t get that feeling whatsoever,” she says. “Somebody said, ‘We’re not going to starve to death.’”
Between competition from the big boxes, fickle consumers, a faster highway to Missoula, virtual shopping on the ‘net and a fire season that put some people out of work for two months, a loss of 10 percent and not starving to death almost strikes a cheery note.