Friday, March 11, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The large billboards dotting parts of Louisville are as striking for their color scheme — black and white — as they are for their message.

“Keep Louisville Weird” the billboards scream.

It’s part of a public-relations campaign in Louisville and cities from Boulder, Colo., to Raleigh, N.C., aimed at drawing customers to unique, locally owned stores.

The campaigns and small-business alliances are using the effort to stay in competition with large retail chains such as Wal-Mart, Target and the recently merged Kmart-Sears.

“They can be a serious threat,” said Leslie Stewart, a public relations specialist responsible for the billboards. “Their collective buying power is so great that many local merchants can’t compete on a pricing level on merchandise and the independents can’t compete when it comes to the big marketing dollars the chains have.”

But large retailers say they bring things to customers that small stores don’t and that the presence of one doesn’t mean the demise of the other.

“We think the two can coexist quite peacefully,” said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Some small-business owners, such Cheryl Daly, who runs the “Raleigh Unchained” campaign in North Carolina, think otherwise.

“Chain stores are definitely a threat to small business,” Miss Daly said. “Look at a small coffee shop trying to compete with Starbucks.”

The small-business alliances and “Weird” campaigns grew out of meetings by a group of independent booksellers, said David Bolduc, owner of the Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo., and one of the founders of the movement.

The campaigns are generally done in small to midsized cities — no “Keep Chicago Weird” or “New York Unchained” because those cities are too big for such a campaign to work, Mr. Bolduc said.

Chains such as Wal-Mart and Borders bookstores have drawn criticism in recent years for moving into small and midsized cities and drying up the local business community.

Mr. Bolduc said the aim of the campaign isn’t to try and put stores like that out of business but to preserve areas that are filled with local businesses, such as Louisville’s Bardstown Road, a nine-mile stretch of Magazine Street in New Orleans or much of Austin, Texas.

“The point is to bring into the conversation how things are being homogenized,” Mr. Bolduc said.

The homogenization happens when a big-box retail store or mall moves near a popular stretch of local businesses, where there are plenty of potential customers, said David Kaseman, co-founder of the Santa Fe, N.M., Independent Business and Community Alliance.

The small businesses can’t keep pace with the larger stores prices, hours and advertising, Mr. Kaseman said.

“They wipe them out over time since they do not have to make a profit to stay in business and have the media advertising dollars to influence buying decisions,” Mr. Kaseman said.

Miss Tolley said large retailers aren’t out to kill off local businesses, but give shoppers more choices for merchandise. The large stores also bring more people into the area, she said, providing more potential customers for the small stores.

“Consumers are after good values,” Miss Tolley said. “They may go to the large store for everyday items, then stop in the smaller store for that special item or gift.”

Too often, though, the customers aren’t going to the small, local businesses, Louisville’s Miss Stewart said. Instead, they are just gathering at the malls or large stores and bypassing the small stores, which close because of a lack of business.

“That’s happening all over the nation,” Miss Stewart said. “Its stealing the unique flavor of a lot of communities.”

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