How Retailers Are Using Community Engagement To Make a Difference

building community

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Updated November 6, 2023

Retailers play an essential role in community engagement by supporting local causes, participating in local events, and partnering with other businesses. Retailers are the glue that brings the community together and betters it through cause-related marketing and collaborations that build strong connections within their local communities.

Every year since 1963, the President of the United States has issued a proclamation announcing National Small Business Week to celebrate small businesses' contributions to our country.

That's because these hardworking entrepreneurs create about two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year. As part of Small Business Week, the Small Business Administration showcases the impact these entrepreneurs create.

This week, I'm sharing how they build community through various means. Let this showcase ideas for your downtown association or retail store.

Retailer Collaboration

A group of merchants in Long Beach, CA, got together several years ago with a fun promotion involving Barbie. They hosted a unique event, and each business did something to tie into the gimmick: Barbie. You can see how each business contributed on the back of the postcard below.

Barbie postcardbarbie1IMG_0354

I loved this promotion because so many times, businesses, particularly downtown areas, know they want to do "something" but do the tired, the tried, the boring. The "everything 20% off with coupon" or BOGOs (buy one get one free) are being sold to businesses large and small as the way to market your business and drive sales.

You can hear the customers as they open their feeds, grab the mailer or click the link, "Yippee - another junk sale where everyone puts their last year's castoffs on racks, drags them out to the front of their beautiful stores, and people paw through them looking for "bargains.' Pass."

This Barbie promotion stood out because it was so different, visually eye-catching, and fun. Plus, they involved EVERYONE on the street, not just retailers but even the architects.

Let's be honest, don't you wonder what "Barbie-inspired drinks" would include?

They did a great job promoting on their Facebook and Twitter pages and through direct mail. The local paper also picked up the story.

Now that the new Barbie movie has been released to glowing reviews, I think several creative types could create an excellent community-building event. 

Cause-Related Marketing

The Great Decorate is an event held in Birmingham, Michigan, where merchants in the downtown development area compete to decorate Christmas trees and raise funds for a chosen charity. It started from one restaurant owner's desire to provide a team-building exercise for her employees. In 2019, eight teams decorated Christmas trees and raised almost $16,000 for foster teens about to age out of the system. One child was adopted and got to spend Christmas Day with a family.

This past year, the event has expanded, and all merchants in the downtown area were invited to participate. The establishment that raised the most money for their tree also won a prize. The event is intended to bring people to the downtown area during the holiday season and create a festive atmosphere while giving back to the community. In 2021, they raised nearly $70,000, evenly split among 20 local foster teens. This year, their goal is $100,000.

The event raises funds and provides a support network for foster teens. That's important because 20% of children in foster care will instantly become homeless after they reach 18.

To bring such an event to your downtown area, present the concept to your events committee or development authority and get their support. And don't worry about starting small.

Here are some of the great pics from last year's contest:

Radical Transparency To Share

Becky Okell, who co-founded Paynter Jacket, a UK company that sells clothing in limited-release collections called batches, shares what and how they have built the business. As she said in an interview for Buffer, "As an online clothing brand, [community] is not going to happen unless we really invest, try, and work for it. [But] building a community for us was super important [and] working in public was a huge part of doing that.”

But does building community work? They sell out each batch of their jackets in minutes, not months. 

They also have meet-ups worldwide to keep their community engaged and offer a podcast to answer questions. That's important when they only make four batches of products per year. 

I particularly enjoyed the video they shared of how their batch number 3.5 went live in this video.

Helping Other Entrepreneurs

Tonya Cross, the accessory designer of Accented Glory, created a non-profit organization in Salisbury, NC, that hosts personal development and small business workshops. As the facilitator of these events, she understands the struggles of finding funding and resources to build and grow a business.

That's why she spearheaded the Salisbury-Rowan Black Business Pitch Contest, reaching out to local black business owners for support.

Cross asked them to sow monies into the pitch winner and to act as pitch judges. She also contacted other black businesses and asked them to provide business services to the winner. Within 24 hours, Cross received verbal commitments for monetary and service packages for the pitch winner. The response was so overwhelming that the pitch committee could also award service packages to 2nd and 3rd place winners.

The pitch contest also allowed the audience to participate and vote for their favorite pitch, serving as a unifying force for the community and investing in a nearby business owned by a person of color.

Bringing Community Together

So many people forget about the daily job retailers and small businesses do to unite people. And during the holidays, social isolation and loneliness are at a high.

The Foundation For Social Connection has released an Action Guide for Building Socially Connected Communities and promotes 20 promising strategies for social connection. Another resource is The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, which partnered with F4SC on the project.

Teresa Lorenson with Bloom Where You're Planted shared that they went viral with this picture of a 90-year-old great-grandpa in the corn pit at their pumpkin patch. 



Read about my participation in Lemonade Day and how it is teaching young entrepreneurs

In Sum

Retailers are pivotal in fostering community engagement and strengthening the bonds between local businesses and residents.

By participating in cause-related marketing, collaborating with fellow retailers, and supporting other entrepreneurs, they contribute significantly to the vibrancy and growth of their communities.

Each year, when we celebrate Small Business Week, let us recognize these creative entrepreneurs' contributions and appreciate the unique ways they bring communities together - especially after the pandemic.

Their efforts create memorable experiences, drive economic growth, and ensure the sustainability of our local neighborhoods.

Do you want to stand out in a crowded marketplace? Do you want your downtown to be memorable instead of sad?

Do you want to gain fans and profitable customers?

Put your heads together to do something other than another sidewalk sale, and you'll find you'll make memories, entrepreneurs, and sales.