Small Business Forum Hosted by EDC Reveals Challenges and Opportunities for Wilton Merchants

On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the Wilton Economic Development Commission (EDC) held a special meeting as part of an ongoing EDC effort to hear directly from Wilton merchants about the business challenges they face, particularly in light of the damaging impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As GMW has previously reported, many of them are struggling to stay afloat while the COVID-19 pandemic has continued far longer than most expected.

The Board of Selectmen first requested the EDC examine this issue last October, and to make recommendations to the BOS as to how the town can help support local businesses. While some preliminary insights were discussed at the EDC’s Jan. 13 meeting, the Jan. 27 special meeting was designed to elicit more information from business owners before the commission finalized any recommendations to the selectmen.

Owners of Classically Cate, SDSS Martial ArtsSweet Pierre’s, Signature Style, River Road Gallery, Wilton Hardware and Untangled, along with several other interested members of the Wilton community, responded to the EDC’s open invitation to participate in the forum.

EDC Chair Prasad Iyer opened the Zoom meeting by noting it would be a “listening session” and asked participants to share their key business concerns and suggestions for how the town might help. Unlike most commission meetings, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and some other town officials were in attendance.

Michael Meyer, the owner of SDSS Martial Arts school, brought up the fact that town and after-school programs (such as Continuing Ed and the Parks and Recreation Department) were, perhaps inadvertently, creating competition for some businesses, like his. He hoped the town might consider a process more thoughtful of local merchants when selecting programs to offer and hiring local vendors for those programs.

Several owners voiced deep frustration with commercial property owner Kimco and their inability to negotiate meaningful relief on their rent. The town has no real authority to intervene in contract negotiations between the landlord and tenants.

Calls for Increasing Customer Traffic

The business owners consistently called for any initiatives that would help drive more customer traffic to the town center and/or to local merchants.

One idea mentioned by Nancy Saxe, owner of Wilton Center merchant Sweet Pierre’s, was to re-locate the Wilton Farmer’s Market from Danbury Rd. into town center. Camille Carriero, executive director of the Wilton Chamber of Commerce (as well as the manager of the farmer’s market), reacted favorably to the idea during the meeting. Vanderslice was also conceptually open to the idea.

Other ideas included:

  • Loosening restrictions on signage (Vanderslice mentioned that Rick Tomasetti, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, has committed to addressing this issue in the coming year)
  • Promotional programs aimed at employees who work at larger companies located in Wilton (such as ASML), to create awareness of Wilton’s many small shops, restaurants and services (Vanderslice offered the commission a reminder that the EDC can request funds from the town for precisely those types of promotional programs)
  • Cross-promotional programs among Wilton merchants that incentivize a customer of one merchant to patronize another

One Bright Spot: New Residents

On a positive note, Saxe of Sweet Pierre’s reported a perceptible change in the store’s clientele: she’s seen an uptick in people who have recently moved to Wilton from New York. She’s found that the new customers are more accustomed to shopping in small shops and more open to some of the specialty items she carries in the store.

Signature Style owner Janet Siegel also made the observation that residents new to town were creating much of the recent energy in the store.

A Sense of Urgency

Despite the optimism about an influx of new residents, the business owners face a sobering reality of short-term business challenges.

SDSS’s Meyer offered a grim assessment of other small businesses in Wilton, predicting that a very high percentage of them would be forced to close in the next 3-4 months, unable to sustain their businesses any longer with personal funds and loans, if current conditions and COVID restrictions continue.

Without a miraculous pandemic turnaround or major intervention, many of Wilton’s merchants desperately need help now.

That was the thinking behind the Wilton Chamber’s plan for the upcoming Winter Fest 2021, a two-week series of events that kicks of Feb. 1 to promote Wilton merchants and also reward shoppers. One element of Winter Fest is a bonus gift certificate program, in which shoppers who purchase a gift card/certificate from a participating retailer or restaurant will receive a bonus Chamber of Commerce gift certificate worth 20% of the value of the gift certificate purchased.

Carriero emphasized during the meeting that the promotion will help get much-needed revenue into merchants hands immediately.

Keeping the Conversation Going

GMW reached out to Vanderslice for her thoughts following the meeting. She responded, “It was a very good discussion and one [which, as suggested in the meeting], would be helpful to have with regularity.”

For Vanderslice, the key takeaway from the meeting was “the need for a cohesive effort to market retail businesses to Wilton residents, employees of Wilton businesses and residents of neighboring towns. That is certainly something the EDC can spearhead with assistance from town resources.”

Carriero also told GMW she felt the meeting was beneficial. “The meeting was productive. I thought it was good that some of the concerns of our small business owners were expressed directly to town officials.”

Carriero also said, “I want to continue working with the EDC and collaborate more on how we can support both our small businesses and develop a partnership with our larger corporations in town.”

The next EDC meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 7:15 p.m.

As with all public meetings, the Jan. 27 EDC Special Meeting was recorded and may be viewed on the town website.  Residents may also find the EDC on Facebook.