Unintended consequences

I am a free marketeer. I believe - and even love - competition. I believe the American people are blessed with the right to do things not harmful to others and not harmful to the environment. I believe in the future of America, Vermont, and Manchester.

I also believe businesses like McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks, and other fast food franchises have the right to do business here. I think it is OK to have big national and regional brands like Eddie Bauer, Banana Republic, and Sleepy's do business in town. I think it is OK to have large branded hotels here as well.

But I do believe - passionately - that small, independent businesses must also have the right to do business, compete, survive, and thrive, in the face of the Goliath-like companies that locate in town and who compete for the available - and some say shrinking - pool of consumer dollars in the area. And I do believe that the way the rules are written in Manchester with respect to exterior signage, display, and visual exterior merchandising; the small independent business is discriminated against unfairly. The unintentional consequences of the myriad of out dated ordinances in place holding down on-site marketing by independents seriously harms, hinders - and will eventually kill off in increasing numbers - our locally owned and loved deli's, restaurants, clothing stores, and lodging establishments. Here's why: Every one of the big brand franchises mentioned above has advertising and marketing budgets in the scores of millions. They make huge buys of print and electronic media at their whim. They have bulging public relations budgets enabling them to further capture the daily attention of the consuming public. We all know instantly the typeface and images developed by these big brands to attract patronage. So in town, just a simple legal 16 square foot sign placed on any one of their buildings - which are specifically designed and colored to reflect the style of the brand - is all the establishment needs to attract casual business to its door. Period! Contrast this to the local independent who has a unique selection of products or foods or rooms inside their establishment but who has no simple and instant means of telling the traveling public about it other than their name on a sign out front. They all get the same size sign as the big guys and that's it! While locals come to know, casual visitors to the town - the population so many rely on to provide profits during the busy tourist seasons - do not. And in this era of what we can call "instant logo communication," unless there is change, we are in for big trouble.

Manchester will become a big brand, big chain haven and nothing more. The town will lose its commercial soul.

Independents need to employ every means possible to capture the visitor's business. We need to be able to put a quick sign out to promote our offerings. Maybe "Rooms tonight only $99," "Sandwich special BBQ pork and chips only $5.99," or "Woolrich plaid shirts on sale today only." I think you know what I mean. And a Sidewalk Sale once or twice a year doesn't cut it. We're talking everyday competition all year long.

It is said that our sign and display ordinances are there to promote the image of the town as a rural New England village. Fine. But rural New England villages do not have a plethora of national chains like Manchester does and in most New England rural villages businesses are much freer anyway than ours in terms of display regulation. Do all these big brands operating here make us a typical New England village? I doubt it.

It is said that our sign and display ordinances are there to create a level playing field. What level playing field? Are the proponents of all of this regulation saying that our little, locally-owned and low budget retail, food, and lodging establishments living within the restrictive display regulations in place are on a level marketing field with the mega-brands that are taking over this town? Really? Personally, I could care less that my little store - the Garden Arts Fresh Market - has to compete with big brand businesses.

Do I care that we have to compete with Shaw's and Price Chopper for food sales? No, we have a unique niche in locally grown and produced foods exemplified by our broad selection of local meats and other specialty products.

Do I care that the Fresh Market might have to compete with Starbucks for coffee and pastry sales? No, we have great Vermont roasted coffee and our pastries are delicious and made right in Manchester from scratch.

Do I care that we have to compete with Dunkin Donuts for doughnut sales? No, we have doughnuts made by a Vermonter who has been creating them here the same way for 30-plus years.

And finally, do I care that the Market is going to have to compete with Subway for lunch sandwiches? No again, our lunch sandwiches are made here from scratch, are made with local breads and meats, are a good value, and are delicious.

What I do care about is that my cohorts and I have our competitive hands tied when it comes to telling our product advantage stories. I do care about an unfairly tilted and unnatural playing field. Not having millions to spend on electronic and traditional media, what I care about is the unnecessary regulation that stops us from doing our creative best to unleash all the tools in our marketing bag of tricks to easily and affordably make our product's point of difference.

Every independent has its own particular story, but in my case unless the Fresh Market can legally invite in traveling tourists with a welcome flag, a tasteful road side sign (or signs) announcing our selection of organic meats and local cheeses, or put a meaningful sign at the entrance to our parking lot - and do all those other simple things that are basic to spirited retail marketing, we will likely lose our battle. And in the case of others in their own individual categories, so will they.

So I ask you, how long will we small independents have to put up with this town-induced assault on our freedom of expression, on our right to compete as we know how, and on our right to economic prosperity in the face of the heavy odds against us? When will this madness end so we can collectively get on the road to avoiding the unintended negative consequences of well meaning, but ill informed regulators who promote bad regulations? It is time to give the design police a rest and let our local businesses have at it. Given a fair chance to have a fair fight with our gloves off, we will do better, look better, employ more people, pay better wages, encourage others to open unique shops, and make Manchester much more than the big brand 'strip mall' that the New York Times described it as in their February 2014 article - "36 Hours in Manchester".

Steve Burzon is the owner of the Garden Arts Companies Landscaping, Fencing, Masonry, and Food.


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