By most accounts, 2017 was a tough year for traditional “bricks and mortar” retailers. This past year saw a record number of retailers filing for bankruptcy protection and a pace of retail store closures surpassing even that of the Great Recession. That trend has continued into 2018, topped off by the recent bankruptcy filing of iconic brand Toys-R-Us and the sudden closure of all of its remaining stores. While retail vacancy rates within the Town of Fairfield remain comparatively low, it hasn’t been immune to the forces re-shaping the retail marketplace, as evidenced by the recent departures of EMS, Banana Republic and Mrs. Green’s, to mention a few. So, what gives, and what does this mean for Fairfield?

Part of the answer obviously lies with changing preferences in terms of how we shop, and the well documented rise in on-line retail, whose growth rate surpassed 15% this past year and now accounts for more than 9% of all retail sales. E-commerce giant Amazon is the focus of much attention in this regard and rightfully so; Amazon now accounts for one-quarter of all incremental retail sales growth in the U.S. and dominates the market such that consumers are increasingly doing searches for products on Amazon directly, bypassing traditional search engines such as Google. But, e-commerce is not the only threat that traditional retailers face as rising costs and razor-thin margins also impact their continued viability. And, arguably, the retail sector was destined for retrenchment, as the U.S. has the most retail space of any country in the world, surpassing the next closest country, Canada, by 25 percent.

A healthy retail sector is important for most communities, including Fairfield, where it accounts for ten percent of all businesses and nearly 17% of all employment. And, part of the charm of Fairfield, especially our downtown, but also our village and neighborhood centers, is the diversity of our retail sector, including many locally owned and operated or “mom and pop” stores. These locally owned stores are interwoven into the fabric of our community and contribute significantly to the local economy. In fact, statistics show that these local businesses have a far greater impact on the local economy than big box retailers, not to mention distant e-commerce giants, as much of the money spent at local stores is re-invested locally. For example, studies have shown that $100 spent at a local retailer generates $55 in local economic activity, compared to $15 at a big box retailer or chain store. And, locally owned businesses contribute more to local charities and causes than do national chains.

Fairfield is truly fortunate to have a vibrant downtown and a relatively healthy retail sector with many independently owned shops and restaurants. These small businesses continue to face new challenges such as increased rents and competition from both big box and e-commerce retailers. The Town works with the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce to help support local businesses through events such as Fairfield Restaurant Week, Small Business Saturday and the Summer Sidewalk Sale. The Town promotes all these local initiatives through our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/experiencefairfield. Another good resource to stay current on local events and happenings is through our Experience Fairfield website at www.experiencefairfieldct.org .

In a few weeks, Fairfield will be hosting our semi-annual Shop & Stroll event. This event, which will be held rain or shine, will take place in downtown Fairfield on Thursday April 26. More than two dozen shops are expected to take part, extending their regular business hours until at least 9 p.m., and offering complimentary refreshments from 5 to 9 p.m. A number of local restaurants will be offering dinner or drink specials throughout the evening. Shop & Stroll is a great opportunity to enjoy a night out with friends and connect with these small business owners, while taking advantage of some special savings. So, come celebrate the arrival of spring, enjoy all that Fairfield has to offer and support our local businesses by shopping local!

Mark Barnhart is the Director of Community & Economic Development for the Town of Fairfield, and is the Treasurer of the Connecticut Economic Development Association (CEDAS).