Online shopping has changed the face of local retail nationwide. As people increasingly choose the convenience of ordering products by a click of the computer mouse, local businesses often feel a pinch on their bottom line. This is forcing all retailers, including those in smaller towns, to rethink how they do business.

Tara Bitzan, Executive Director of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, said Alexandria is ahead of the curve in many ways on this.

"Our downtown is doing really well," she said. "There are very few empty storefronts."

But, she said the town as a whole still needs to adapt in order to survive and thrive in these rapidly-changing times and business environment.

The local shopping district is critical for drawing visitors and tourists, she said. When people are looking at day trips or weekend getaways, they are looking at towns with a variety of things to do. They want to park their car nearby and walk to visit retailers, do their shopping, and have an enjoyable vacation experience.

Chamber directors from other towns have told Bitzan how much they struggle with their own downtown districts, with every third or fourth storefront sitting empty, and ask her how Alexandria is able to keep its buildings filled.

Bitzan believes the supportiveness of Alexandria's business owners are essential elements keeping the city ahead of the curve.

"Our business sector has a strong culture of mutual support for one another," she said. "There is healthy competition, but it is not the bitter competition found in some places."

She also noted that there is a spirit of innovation in Alexandria, and many downtown merchants are already adapting to the online markets and catering to the new reality. Increasingly, they are creating business websites and shipping products directly to their customers.

The solution to keeping local retail vital in the face of internet-based competition is not a simple one. But the chamber is working with others on strategies to improve the town's awareness of the value of supporting local business (see related story).

If more people understand the impact of their dollar, Bitzan thinks they would be willing to shop local more often if the product was available.

Encouraging economic development

In the past, economic developers have focused on attracting manufacturers. They were more difficult to recruit, said Nicole Fernholz, executive director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission.

"Historically, we have not gone out to recruit retailers," she said. Typically, retailers have been drawn to Alexandria and the sector has developed "naturally."

However, the commission does assist retail in several ways, mainly through research. A recent retail analysis, based on 2016 data (the most recent data available), pinpoints retail trends in the Alexandria area.

It showed that spending on eating and drinking had grown just over $7 million from 2013-16, the largest increase of any retail sector. Meanwhile, general merchandise stores, the largest contributors of taxable sales in Alexandria's economy, saw a sizable drop during that time, about $3.7 million less in 2016 than in 2013.

Those numbers, of course, predate this year's loss of two of Viking Plaza Mall's four anchor stores, JCPenney and Herberger's. While the mall has attracted one new business - Jump4Fun, which maintains six bounce houses in the space vacated by Rue 21 - nobody has yet come forward to occupy those anchor spots.

The commission has provided demographic data to the mall that it can bring to prospective tenants, Fernholz said. It also publishes an annual fact book with information about the local area, including incomes. If retail establishments such as the mall seek more assistance, she said, "We take our cue from them."

And the EDC is shifting to adapt to what Fernholz calls a "new economic narrative" locally. Because of the critical shortage of workers, the commission is not recruiting just industry, but people. It has launched a "Like it? Live it!" campaign on social media, trying to persuade former residents and visitors to settle here permanently.

A destination shopping area

Betty Ravnik and Patty Dusing are both board members of the Alexandria Downtown Merchants Association. They both have businesses downtown - Ravnik owns Ravnik and Company, an interior design store, and Dusing owns Trend and Couture by Ann Manning, a women's clothing boutique.

The focus of the Merchants Association, they said, is to get people downtown through different events. The two women are active in the events community and have been a part of several events, such as the Wine and Art Crawl, Party in the Street and Crazy Daze. Those types of events have created a tremendous response, they said, and usually draw big crowds.

Both women feel that the downtown's strength is that it's a one-stop shop and that it is walkable.

Ravnik and Dusing give a lot of credit to other sources besides the Downtowners Association for promoting downtown as a destination shopping area. That includes the Chamber of Commerce, Explore Alexandria, the City of Alexandria and others.

The two store owners feel that brick and mortar shopping businesses will always remain because of the experience it provides. Shopping in a store is about the interaction and the experience, and one they feel will never go away.