Adam Greenfield is a Strong Towns member and blogger at The Plaza Perspective.. We welcome him as a guest writer today.


Merchants can be a tough lot when you’re trying to make change. When I co-founded San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Sundays, a community-organized street fair, in 2010 (I openly admit that we were total rookies and were absolutely winging it that first time) my team and I saw merchants as a hurdle to overcome on the path to achieving our dreams of street event glory. Yes, we let the merchants know about the event ahead of time, collected their support, and invited them to join if they were interested. But otherwise, we hoped the merchants would leave us alone and not make life difficult for us.

Angie Petitt-Taylor (left) and Madeleine Savit (right)

Angie Petitt-Taylor (left) and Madeleine Savit (right)

And that’s more or less what happened the first year; we got away with it. However, karma came around to bite us. The next year some merchants complained to the city, forcing us to greatly revise our plans for the second event. One merchant, a local bookstore, claimed our first event had cost them business that day. Then, a previous merchant supporter refused to re-sponsor us after hearing more such dissatisfied whispers from nearby stores. The merchants were revolting (from our perspective, in both senses of the word!).

Back in 2010, merchants seemed a frustrating bunch to us, quick to grumble, slow to help, and reluctant to support our hard work. But as our organizing experience grew, so our view of merchants matured. Much of what we’ve learned since 2010 about working with merchants has come from two fantastic San Francisco-based organizers: Community event planner Angie Petitt-Taylor (with whom I co-organize a local flea market) from Sunset Mercantile and activist Madeleine Savit (who worked with merchants as part of the Folks For Polk streetscape project). Both Angie and Madeleine have devoted years to understanding and working with merchants on win-win outcomes.

Thanks in large part to Angie and Madeleine, my fellow organizers and I came to empathize with merchants and to see them as partners in change. Indeed, in 2016 the local bookstore mentioned above, which we previously viewed as an adversary, joined our street event for the first time as a partner. The bookstore and the event organizers were all pleased with the results.

Helping local merchants to support and see the benefits of what might be a challenging proposal takes work, a lot of work. But it can be done. Here are five key ways to do it. (For more in-depth exploration on the below, see my interviews on The Plaza Perspective blog with Angie and Madeleine.)

1. EMPATHIZE WITH MERCHANTS

Angie, a small business owner herself, puts this well: “Merchants are often apprehensive and tend to be suspicious if something involves closing off streets. It’s hard to run a business, there are lots of components to manage, and it’s challenging to bring people into your store. If things change around the business it’s hard for the owner.”

So don’t despair when you get a cold shoulder when confronting a merchant with a new idea. Running a business is hard, stakes are high.

Local grocery store owner Sam (with me on the right) embraced our street events once we found ways to help his business through the events.

Local grocery store owner Sam (with me on the right) embraced our street events once we found ways to help his business through the events.

2. BE A FAMILIAR FACE

The central part of working with merchants is developing a relationship, which requires face to face contact. When you’re a familiar and welcome face your ideas are more likely to receive consideration. This could take repeated visits. It doesn’t harm to be a customer at those businesses too!

During the Folks For Polk project, Madeleine made sure that merchants knew and trusted her before she got into details about the project (which concerned expanding bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure on the Polk Street commercial corridor). She repeatedly visited merchants until they got to know her. On these early visits, no firm details about the project were discussed.

For Angie, who works on events rather than infrastructure projects, relationship-building is also priority number one. She’s able to discuss specifics immediately but returns to businesses repeatedly with updates and new ideas for how merchants can get involved.

3. CONCENTRATE ON THE MERCHANT’S SELF-INTEREST

Madeleine puts the merchants, not herself or the project, at front and center. On Folks For Polk, after quickly explaining which organization she was representing and its broad mission (“To make the street a more popular and safer destination”), Madeleine asked the merchants to explain Polk Street’s challenges and their ideas for solutions, making sure to make copious notes and to ask follow up questions, positioning the merchant as the expert.

When it was time for Madeleine to return for follow-up conversations, she started to discuss specific project details, making sure to articulate those details in terms of the benefits to the merchant, based on what she learned from previous conversations. This didn’t mean deceiving merchants by hiding the idea until they’d been sweet-talked. Instead, the idea was ready to be discussed once it integrated what the merchants cared about.

Angie has some great advice here: Never disagree with the merchant or tell them they’re wrong. Instead, address their concerns and propose solutions.

4. INCLUDE MERCHANTS IN THE PROJECT

Street events can be difficult for small merchants to participate in directly, given their hands are already full with the daily duties of running a business. But Angie has figured out some solutions. Her first big innovation is the “Merchant Hop”, which invites businesses to offer something special, such as a discount or in-store promotion, on the event day and to be featured on a map available at the event and online. At a recent flea market, the Merchant Hop allowed businesses to be involved with, and benefit from, the event without actually being present. The merchants felt included and were happy with business on the day. The Hop had transformed what could be seen as a competitive threat into an opportunity. Secondly, Angie has created the “Supportship”, which is similar to the sponsorship idea of giving money but which offers small local merchants a broader list of ways, such as spreading the word, to support events in exchange for being featured on event posters.

Madeleine included businesses that supported Folks For Polk by inviting them to special merchant-only events where updates would be given and excitement generated. This created community between merchants and a sense of being part of the project.

You may need to come up with other ideas for how to include merchants in your project, but make sure you give merchant participation the attention it deserves.

The first Inner Sunset Sundays community street fair, 2010

The first Inner Sunset Sundays community street fair, 2010

5. BE REALISTIC ABOUT WHO YOU CAN BRING ON BOARD

Madeleine is frank about merchants with differing opinions. The merchants who support your project – the Yes’s – are the straightforward ones. For the No merchants, those who don’t like your idea, don’t waste your time or theirs trying to convince them. For the Undecided merchants, show them how many merchants support the idea. Undecideds are much more likely to come out of the closet once they see existing support.

However, Angie is uncomfortable with any merchant being on the No side. She will do her best to offer a merchant all she can to help them benefit from, and support, an event. “I wouldn’t organize an event if I didn’t honestly believe the merchants would benefit from it”, she says.

ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES…

Even armed with Angie and Madeleine’s many pearls of wisdom, there’s no denying that helping merchants to support and benefit from a project can take considerable time, effort, and skill. You may need to visit some merchants many times, be creative about addressing their concerns, and exercise great restraint and patience when encountering resistance. And even with all that effort, you still may not achieve all of your goals. Madeleine’s project got significantly watered-down in the end. But she’s confident that the final results were still much better than they would have been without her merchant relationship-building.

However, there are good reasons why you should work with, rather than fight or ignore, merchants. First, as we saw with our street fairs, neglecting merchants may yield decisive resistance later. Second, with enough dialog and creativity, your project can and should be shaped into a win-win, for merchants and for everybody else. Working with merchants is worth your time.

(All photos courtesy of Adam Greenfield)


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About the author

Adam Greenfield is a community organizer and streets-for-people advocate from San Francisco, California. With community as his all-encompassing mission, the way that urban design influences social fabric is central to Adam’s work. Food, sharing, community-based assets, and inclusiveness are also key elements of his projects. Born on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, Adam obtained a Law BA from the University of Warwick in England and a Communications MA from San Francisco State University, California. Adam became a community organizer soon after moving to San Francisco. You can read more from Adam on his blog, The Plaza Perspective.