UMN faculty help rural retailers amid dire situation

The workshops, which begin this week and continue through April, will help small businesses navigate a changing retail landscape.

Helen Sabrowsky

In an increasingly competitive environment, University of Minnesota faculty are helping build resiliency in rural small businesses.

Working with community partners, faculty from the University’s College of Design and the University Extension will host a series of workshops throughout Kandiyohi County starting this week. The Retail Business Workshops series will cover a range of topics designed to strengthen small businesses, offering coaching sessions and technical assistance.

“[Small businesses] may be destined to fail in this game, but the thing is that their failure impacts the whole community,” said Hye-Young Kim, an associate professor in the College of Design and the retail merchandising program director.

Small-town stores attempting to navigate a retail environment dominated by e-commerce and national retailers face a dire situation, directly impacting the well-being of communities. 

“It is hard to establish a vibrant community without thriving small retailers where people can gather, communicate [and] experience something together,” Kim said.

Small retailers often don’t have the resources or time to locate and obtain expert advice regarding topics like store layout and social media marketing, all of which help them compete against large retailers, said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The workshops will cover a range of topics, including target marketing, management structures and social media use. The workshops are intended to make experts and personalized advice more accessible to local business owners, Backman said. So far, 15 retailers have expressed interest in the program.

Kim originally explored how retail merchandising can be used to help make small businesses more competitive last year through the Joint Retail Assistance Program. She said the program helped one retailer reimagine its existing pop-up store, strengthening its business model. 

Expanding on the original project, the workshop series aims to serve a broader range of retailers, Kim said. At the end of the 10-week program, the team plans to document best practices and case studies that will enable other communities and organizations to replicate its work. 

The series will also build upon work already underway by the EDC and Willmar’s Main Street program, the local branch of a national initiative to revitalize downtown areas, said Sarah Swedburg, a Willmar city planner and director of the Willmar Main Street program. 

“The historic preservation of downtowns, and downtowns in general, are really the lifeblood and heart of all of our communities,” she said.

In addition to serving as cultural and social hubs, small businesses often reflect a community’s identity, Kim said. The team wants to bring this message to policy makers to stress the need for caution before accepting national retailers that can deplete the energy of small retailers, she said. 

“[Local retailers] deliver the unique story of their town to visitors,” Kim said. “They are not just commercial entities selling products and services; they are more than that.”