This weekend I visited a few local specialty stores searching for unique birthday gifts for my son.  Fortunately, we enjoy so many independent retail boutiques in our community.  Sure, I could find similar gifts online if I knew what I was looking for.  But with no real ideas of what to buy, it is a pleasure to rely on local retailers who have curated some pretty neat selections of merchandise.

Knowing our local retail market’s seasonality, I wasn’t too surprised to find our commercial districts pretty slow on a Sunday afternoon in August.  With a mixed sense of relief and dread, I easily found plenty of free parking steps from my destination.

I visited five separate small, independently-owned retailers.  Sure enough, customers were sparse and I had the stores to myself.  Which was too bad, because the retailers had their game faces on.  Business owners themselves waited on me in two of the five stores.  I discovered terrific, affordable gift items and delightful service.  Everyone was so nice.  I just wish there were more customers for them.

Yes, this is a busy time of year with back-to-school activities, festivals and people vacationing.  Yes, Sunday is our “day of rest.”  Still, I noticed people in the restaurants and cafes.  The three grocery stores and the Walgreen’s we visited were packed with people. Lines six-deep at every register. 

There was a time not too long ago when taking a walk downtown was a celebrated leisure activity: fun, relaxing and social.  Maybe you stopped to eat.  Now, the reverse is true:  we go out to eat and maybe stop in a store. Our anchor tenants – the destination spots that attract the bulk of the customers – have become restaurants and grocery. More and more, the quirky independents that give us character and community rely on the nearby food businesses to drive traffic. 

This consumer behavior in part explains current economic development activities.  The more we attract successful “known quantities” in the food sector, the more foot traffic we expect for nearby retail.  And, yes, density and toursim: to thrive, we simply need more people strolling downtown on a Sunday afternoon.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...