“What is the biggest challenge of your job?” people ask me often. 

My answer:  serving a local economy that is increasingly split between small, independently-owned businesses and the growing number of national brands.  National versus independent is a challenge for chambers, because the national retailers, restaurants and even some franchises typically do not join local chambers.  We are working hard to modify our business model to create benefits that appeal to the managers of the national-brand stores.  But the current model of networking, continuing education, advocacy and the opportunity to make local connections tends not to resonate. 

Large corporate-owned companies rely on national brand, central marketing and corporate efficiencies to succeed and deliver on customer promise.  National brands may take advantage of local festivals and may donate to local charities or schools.  But they do not consistently engage locally the way the independents do.

Still, new and planned construction in our downtown and eventually Madison Street is good for our overall local economy.  Development will continue to attract regional and national brand concepts to our area, which both helps and hampers the little guys.

As a community, we like our independent restaurants, quirky boutiques, mom and pop stores, locally-owned service businesses and unique small businesses.  We want to retain our small-town charm and culture.  We want that neighborhood feel from knowing our shopkeepers and owners.  But we also want the convenience, product, name-brand items, familiarity and service that the big companies offer.

On the one hand, more regional and national brands in our commercial districts attract more customers.   We’ll see more vibrancy, foot traffic, leased space and revenue.  On the other hand, we’ll see higher rents than independents can afford, competing product offerings, convenience shoppers defaulting to the big brands and a level of marketing that independents cannot match.

I am confident that big name companies and small town businesses can thrive side by side.  Our Chamber welcomes the big guys and will do its best to continue providing resources to the little guys to help them compete.  Together, large and small businesses create an interesting, sustainable economy that can leave us all better off.

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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...