As Retailers Show, You Have to Go Dark Sometimes to Bring a Crisis into the Light

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Not that it’s the job of the press to toss bouquets, but I still found the headline on a recent [9-26-16] Boston Magazine story on a new web initiative by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (RAM) to be a little stingy.  “Massachusetts Retailers Group Debuts a Spooky Archive of Vacant Storefronts,” it said.

MASSterlist, a news aggregation site operated by the State House News Service, struck a similar tone today when it summarized the project, which consists mainly of a web site featuring photos of closed stores that have gone out of business:

The MASSterlist headline used the word “ominous” to describe the site, and the MASSterlist summary opined that the site “looks so gray and gloomy, as intended, something designed by Darth Vader himself.”
If I were writing those heads, I think I would have emphasized the boldness of DarkStoreFronts, which has as its tagline, "Once Main Street Leaves, It's Not Coming Back."  I would have gone with something like, “Retailers Use Stark Photography to Make Us Ponder Crisis on Main Street.”

In a blog post the other day, RAM president Jon Hurst wrote: “When corporate jobs leave the state for lower-cost locales, it is front page news.  If a hospital seeks to close a facility with empty beds, picket lines go up and politicians go on the attack. If a hot new technology firm offers to locate a handful of jobs in exchange for tax breaks, the government welcome mat is rolled out.  Unfortunately, when a store or restaurant goes dark, little notice is taken except by the former customers and employees.”

Hurst said DarkStoreFronts is designed “to put a spotlight on store closures, job losses, and bad public policy decisions” during a time of “consumer spending transitions, new commercial developments, and the public policy focus on certain sectors, such as the innovation economy.”
Whether it be “tax policy or labor mandates,” Hurst wrote, “many government policies unfortunately put our local stores at a severe competitive and cost disadvantage, and that discrimination has no place in the days of the smartphone.”

He added, “When the stores goes dark, the jobs disappear, as does commercial property tax revenues, community investment, and an important part of our community history and livability.”
The Internet continues to disrupt and permanently alter the buying habits of Americans, causing the demise of many small retailers.  If you are not the guy on Main Street going out of business, you probably call that progress.  If you are that guy, you call it a catastrophe, a life-changing bad event.

The Retailers Association reminds us that entire communities, not just the crushed shop owners and small restaurateurs, pay the price of progress.  They also ask why our lawmakers and policymakers aren’t taking some of the steps they could to give retailers a break, such as repealing the law requiring bricks-and-mortars stores to pay employees time-and-a-half on Sundays when the Amazons of the world pay employees straight time for Sunday work.
In all this, you can’t help but hear echoes from the race for president.  Displaced and jobless workers from the Rust Belt would not have flocked to Donald Trump in such force if our government had done more to support them as they dealt with the unintended, adverse consequences and the stiff challenges of the new economy, which is strongly oriented to digital skills. 

Jon Hurst didn’t say this, but I can: we’re crazy if we remain on a course that will produce on our Main Streets every day more voters for Trump and like-minded candidates.  
Hurst’s blog post on this initiative may be found at:

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