by Philip Dawson, Executive Director, Chestnut Hill Business District
At the Chestnut Hill Welcome Center, it’s a complaint that’s been heard many times: “Why are all the shops closed? I’m so disappointed.” Many things have changed over the past several decades in Chestnut Hill, but the operating hours of local businesses have been one the slowest elements to evolve.
As the head of the Chestnut Hill Business Association, I know that our small businesses are an asset to the community and the heart of our vibrant business district, but I also believe that the time has come for our merchants to embrace the needs of modern customers, moving towards extended evening hours and more convenient days of operation.
At some level, the issue of extending business hours is a chicken and egg dilemma. Merchants are understandably reluctant to commit time and staff salaries to keeping a store open at a time when they believe there won’t be as many customers aren’t shopping on the streets. But there will of course never be a large amount of customers shopping on the streets if all the businesses remain closed.
So how can we break out of the status quo? To find out, I spoke with some of our member businesses who do keep extended hours to find out what drives them. El Quetzal co-owner Yosma Luby keeps her shop open until 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. depending on the day of the week and has been a vocal advocate of other shops doing the same.
“We began extending our evening hours five years ago, starting on April 1 every year,” Luby explained. “Customers were stopping in at closing time on the way to dinner, so we decided to stay open later. I’ve found that it slows down from 5-6, and then picks up again after 6 as people start coming out of the restaurants.”
At Greene Street Consignment on the 8500 block of the Avenue, doors close at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. depending on the day of the week. Store manager Jay Cine described a similar pattern to that which El Quetzal observed.
“We get a rush after 6 p.m. as people get home and go out to eat, and then another one after 8 p.m. as people leave the restaurants,” he said.
I found that the mention of restaurants was a common thread which came up with every business I interviewed who kept later hours. People come to Chestnut Hill to dine out, and when they pass an open shop on the way to or from the restaurant, they are more likely to stop in to browse and buy.
“The restaurants drive in traffic for sure,” said Weavers Way Next Door Manager Christopher Mallam, who is open until 8 p.m. seven days a week. He has found that post-5 p.m. traffic is strongest on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, when people are most likely to go out to eat.
For all three retailers, the amount of sales after 5 p.m. already justifies staying open, and they only stand to gain if the trend spreads.
“The more people that stay open, the better,” Mallam said.
For Rebel Yoga owner Sue Pinto, daily operating hours and evening availability are an important part of her business model.
“Being open to serve clients when they have free time is a must,” she said. “We’re open seven days a week to allow customers to incorporate fitness and shopping into their schedule. My busiest time is between 3 and 7 p.m. towards the end of the workday.”
If a business has sufficient personnel to stagger staff schedules and days off, they may be surprised to find that there are more potential customers on the street than they think, as well as different customers whom they may not be engaging currently.
Finally, perhaps a look back in time provides helpful context for considering the power that these changes can have.
“Until the late 90s, Chestnut Hill was closed on Sundays,” said Kate O’Neill, CHBD Director of Operations. “The business association urged being open on Sundays but didn’t get much traction until the end of the decade. Now Sundays are recognized as the second busiest day, and most shops wouldn’t think of being closed.”
Earlier this year, the Chestnut Hill Business Improvement District also made a decision to invest in year-round lighting of the street trees along Germantown Avenue, which was formerly offered only seasonally. The launch of First Fridays on the Hill, which invites visitors to the District for shopping, dining, and entertainment from 5 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, has benefited from good participation by the business community, and is a positive first step towards more active evenings on the Avenue.
But while the Chestnut Hill Business District does an excellent job promoting local businesses and drawing visitors to the neighborhood, there’s only so much potential for growth in a town that closes down every other day of the month around 5 p.m., before most people even arrive home from work.
In order to make Chestnut Hill a more attractive and well-rounded shopping destination, we are asking our members to consider extending their hours of operation. For those businesses with more leeway in their budgets and staffing schedules, being open 7 days a week until 7 p.m. year-round, with summer hours extending to 8 p.m., is a powerful move in the right direction. For shops with fewer staff and resources, a six-day week with extended hours on key days (e.g. Thursday through Saturday) and at key times of year can also be a good start.
Regardless of what commitment a business makes, consistency is critical, as it can take months for customers to respond to a change and for shopping patterns to develop. In order to support this effort, the CHBA will publish a list of member businesses who have committed to evening hours on its website in summer 2019, develop a campaign to market evenings out in Chestnut Hill, and will commit to paid promotion of the initiative. With picturesque twinkling lights, a historic commercial district, ample parking, fantastic bars and restaurants, and unique shopping, there is no shortage of reasons for people to visit Chestnut Hill. Let’s make sure we’re open for business when they arrive.