Backdoor Retailing

My October 29, 2009 posting on the new normal for downtown retailing prompted a number of requests for additional information about “backdoor retailing.” I am very happy to comply since, for some time now, that has been a topic I have wanted to write about, but just never got to.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Downtown merchants with backdoor operations have two customer streams and revenue sources. First are the walk-in shoppers they draw from the downtown’s pool of visitors. Every downtown business can draw from this visitor pool. Firms with backdoor operations also:

  • Sell to local businesses, organizations and even municipal agencies. These transactions and relationships fit in well with downtown sustainability strategies.
  • Sell to consumers, but out of their stores, and independent of walk-in traffic.

My observations suggest that firms with significant backdoor operations are usually stronger and stay in business longer than other firms in their downtowns. Moreover, these merchants are not inclined to passively sit on their duffs and just wait for shoppers to come to them, but they are more inclined than other merchants to be savvy about social marketing, both face – a -face and online (the subject of a future article).

This is not to say that they are untouched by economic downturns, as restaurants in NYC with large corporate catering businesses have recently demonstrated. In addition, the reduced dependency on downtown customer foot traffic potentially makes these firms less tied to their downtown locations as their backdoor operations grow. However, favorable downtown quality- of- life conditions can reduce the proability that they will actually relocate.

Traditional, Non-electronic, Backdoor Operations

Today, there are electronic and non-electronic variations on backdoor operations. But, the best way of conveying what these operations are like is to provide some examples of the traditional, non-electronic variety:

  • A retail tobacco shop in downtown Rutland, VT, that also was a distributor of tobacco products to merchants in Rutland and the surrounding region
  • A vitamin shop on Bergenline Avenue in West New York, NJ that both manufactured and distributed vitamins to merchants in the region
  • Paint stores in Englewood, NJ and West New York, NJ that have very large building contractor clienteles
  • A women’s clothing shop that took its wares to model and sell at local women’s clubs, PTAs, etc. (Unfortunately, while I remember reading about this on the web, I can’t find the citation in my files.)
  • Sporting goods shops here in Kew Gardens, NY and elsewhere that sell equipment to sports teams, leagues and schools
  • The plethora of restaurants in most downtowns doing off site catering
  • The Carvel in Bayonne, NJ – and I image elsewhere — that sell desserts to local schools, social clubs, etc.
  • A bakery in Woodbury, NJ, that supplied many local eateries with donuts, danishes, etc.
  • A well-known fish market in Maplewood, NJ that supplies over 40 restaurants
  • Nevada Meat Market that supplied many restaurants in Manhattan
  • A fruit and vegetable shop in Kew Gardens, NY that supplied local restaurants

Many downtown service operations also have backdoor components:

  • A dry cleaner in Kew Gardens does uniforms and work clothes for businesses throughout NYC
  • An upholstery shop in Washington, NJ that does work for well-known furniture stores in Northern New Jersey
  • Some hair salons and barber shops that serve non-ambulatory clients in their homes, nursing homes and hospitals

This list of examples of back door operations, though limited in length, is sufficient to show the broad gauge of their potential– and that such operations are certainly not confined to food products.

Online Backdoor Operations

The internet has brought a new dimension to backdoor operations. Merchants that have online storefronts with shopping carts and actual sales are engaging in electronic backdoor operations. The individual shoppers need not ever come to their stores. They are not walking in from the street. They may live in different states or even other nations and never have visited the merchant’s downtown.

On a more modest scale eBay allows downtown merchants to sell online a few items or groups of items without having to create and maintain a storefront of their own.

According to reports in the media and from downtown managers, a properly functioning web store can definitely strengthen some downtown merchants. I have seen a women’s apparel shop thrive because of their online store and I know of a collectables shop that survived through tough times because of its eBay sales.

But some perspective is needed here. Foremost, online sales make up only about 4% of retail sales. Also, most of our downtowns fall in the small and medium-size category and the overwhelming majority of their shops have modest annual sales revenues and very small staffs. Many of them may be able to create and maintain an inexpensive, uncomplicated website that provides simple information about the shop, its location and the types goods and services it sells. That might help drive some more customers into their shops. However, most cannot mount, operate and maintain a web store. Keeping the online inventory current and product shipment too often become killer tasks for small merchants. Some can do better by selling in a controlled manner on eBay. Most are probably best off not attempting electronic backdoor operations because they lack the computer skills, staff and money needed to succeed.

Cultivating More Backdoor Operations – Planting The Seed And Networking Local Businesses

While most merchants will not develop backdoor operations, my sense is that most downtowns have the potential for doubling or tripling their number. Over the years, my informal discussions with merchants suggest that more of the innovative types would try to develop backdoor operations if they simply had thought about them. This suggests that seeding the idea in the minds of the right merchants and then perhaps hooking them up with district merchants who already have successful backdoor operations might be a fairly simple and low cost way of starting to make it happen. Face to face meetings are probably a sure way to go. A low key workshop also would probably produce results – if the right merchants attend.

Also, a good starting point for many merchants is to explore what they could sell to the other businesses and organizations located in or near to their downtown. Downtown organizations can provide real help here by developing a “matchmaker” role. For example, the Long Island City Business Development Corporation’s staff has developed a role of matching the needs for goods and services of their district’s industrial firms with local suppliers.

The Takeaway

Increasing the number of strong stores is always an important objective of a sensible downtown organization. Growing the number of firms with backdoor operations can help make that happen. It should be an essential cog of your organization’s business retention program.

N. David Milder