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The Fallacy of the Market Study

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

This title really should be the Fallacy of the Market Studies, Business Recruiters and Related Consultants in Rural Communities. 

Those of a certain age will most certainly remember the western TV series of the late 1950’s and 1960’s; “Bonanza.” Every week, we’d don our cowboy and cowgirl hats and cap pistols to watch the latest episode about the widower Ben Cartwright and his sons as they managed a huge cattle ranch in the American southwest. 

I am reminded of a particular “Bonanza” episode every time one of our rural communities engages a consultant to do a market study, retail business recruitment, community branding or otherwise tell us what we can do and what retailers they can recruit to make our communities grow. 

In the episode, there’s been a great and long drought.  All the plants and crops are drying up and even cattle are starting to die.  Everyone is suffering and desperate for rain.  Along comes a “rainmaker”, driving into town with his fancy wagon and signage promising to “make it rain”.  The town’s people pool their money to pay the rainmaker a substantial sum to make it rain.  Of course, he can’t really make it rain, whether he’s well-intentioned or not.  The Cartwrights seem to be the only people who are against paying him the money.  After there is no rain and he is run out of town (with the money, I think), rain finally comes naturally, and everyone is happy and ready for the next episode. 

Small cities and towns in rural America struggle to meet the challenges of declining populations and dwindling local businesses.  Now, these towns face not only the “box store” competition that has been with us for decades, but also an ever-increasing presence of competition on the Internet. 

Consultants come to town and in the results of their expensive market studies, they tell us that our way-finding signs—i.e. signs directing to attractions and districts—are not good. They tell us about “leakage”, that is, how much money is being spent out of town because we don’t have the right kind of restaurants or retail stores. They tell us our retailers need to spruce up their store fronts and put planters on the sidewalks. They tell us we need blade signs under our awnings. (Blade signs are perpendicular to vehicle and pedestrian traffic, more easily read by passersby. Blade signs also violate city ordinance in most of our towns.) Do we really need to pay someone thousands of dollars to tell us those things? If we had community meetings couldn’t we come up with this list of improvements on our own? Yes, we could come up with the list ourselves, yet in our region we have paid thousands of dollars to consultants to tell us those very things. 

Some consultants are retail recruiters and promise to bring great retailers and franchises to our towns. But, our greatest retail stores and stories do not come as a result of expensive retail recruiters. Rather, they come for grass roots efforts by locals who are passionate about their communities and passionate about offering a positive shopping experience. 

The best solution for increased retail activity in our communities is to inspire entrepreneurial thinkers that have been shown how to uncover problems in the local marketplace and work toward solutions that people want.  There’s really no way outside consultants can do that regardless of how much they are paid.  We have local talent that can figure out how to improve our way-finding signs, spruce up our towns, help our existing businesses, start new ones and in some cases even recruit retailers from outside the area.  

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at jimcorrell.com. 


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