The other night my colleague and I were convening a merchant roundtable and started by distributing a questionnaire that asked the merchants to describe their typical customer. Things like where they come from, whey they shop in the district, what problems they see with the district…etc. Knowing your customer and responding to their needs and concerns is the foundation of a successful business. Unfortunately, many of the merchants in the room couldn’t answer some of these basic questions. This simple questionnaire pointed to a fundamental problem within the district – merchants cannot pinpoint the reasons why customers are choosing to spend their dollars elsewhere. Without this critical information, there is little that merchants can do to address the problems and improve the shopping experience for their customers.

What I found interesting about that meeting, but not too unusual, was the emphasis that merchants placed on the shortage of parking as the primary reason their businesses are suffering. The mood in the room was tense as merchants lashed out in frustration at the parking situation. Here’s the rub – two follow up roundtables with residents and district employees found that parking was in fact a MINOR concern. Their real concerns were related to the trash, litter, unappealing storefronts and ‘grimy’ interiors of stores…these were the real reasons that many hesitated to shop in the district. The disconnect between what merchants thought was the problem and what the customers actually said was the problem was amazing – and hopefully eye-opening for many of the merchants.

A recent article in the New York Times on-line (“What do Customers Really Want? Here’s How to Find Out”) emphasized a similar challenge. Small business owners clearly need to be more aggressive in gathering information from customers. There is no short cut for this kind of research, however commercial district management entities are in an excellent position to conduct this research on behalf of multiple merchants and the district as a whole, thereby sharing the costs of the surveying and helping to address and implement solutions to the challenges identified during the process. Surveys are helpful, but they are also no substitute for merchants striking up conversations with their customers and asking some of these questions themselves. District management entities should encourage their merchants to strike up conversations with their customers, or suggest that they make it easy for customers to provide feedback on the business’ website. After all, the flexibility of small business owners is their greatest strength – they can more quickly response to problems and challenges than large chains can…and build a loyal customer base in the process.