Its most prominent signs should promote the brand names it carries, Gibbs says, to take advantage of the millions of dollars that big companies spend on advertising to shape perceptions of their products. And what would be good for this store would be good for West Palm Beach.
"People will see `Cole Haan' and they will drive off the road," Gibbs explains. "They will say, `I thought this was a dumpy area. If they sell Cole Haan, they can't be that bad.'"
The store could give itself an even bigger lift, according to Gibbs, by making use of a few rudimentary lifestyling gestures. To hear him tell it, lifestyling is the late-twentieth-century equivalent of the barber pole, announcing to shoppers what's for sale. It is ubiquitous in the mall but virtually nonexistent on Clematis Street and other American main streets. Its vocabulary is easily acquired. Simply placing a canoe paddle or a bicycle in the window of the men's store, Gibbs says, would telegraph several messages to passing shoppers, including the vital (and correct) information that it is selling clothes that fit what Gibbs classifies as "the L. L. Bean look."
Down the street, at Mac Fabrics, we count seven signs with the store's name on them, and none displaying brand names. "Brands are what give you credibility," Gibbs says. If he had his way, signs advertising brand names would hang from the imitation-antique light poles that line the street.
This, obviously, is not a sentimental view of the American town. Gibbs is not proposing to restore the cozy village of the popular imagination. Nor does he think that the town will ever eradicate the malls, Wal-Marts, power centers, and other commercial innovations of American retailing. The American shopper's expectations have by now been completely conditioned by malls and national advertisers. The shopper wants, at the very least, much more choice than the traditional town ever provided.
The same people who tell Gibbs in focus groups that they are tired of malls complain that many small towns are, well, too small. Why drive half an hour to browse through only a handful of stores? Gibbs's rule of thumb is that a town needs at least 200,000 square feet of retail space, about the same amount as in a small mall, to become what retailers call a destination--a place that people are willing to travel to.
And once they get to their destination, people don't really want to shop in old-fashioned small-town stores. Americans, in their time-honored way, want a variety of often contradictory things. They may like quaint, one-of-a-kind stores that seem to sell unique merchandise, but they also want the comfort and security of national brand names on the goods they buy, and they don't want to pay a lot for them.
Mall operators and national retailers are moving quickly to give people what they want, and Gibbs's message is that towns must do so too if they wish to survive and prosper. That still leaves plenty of room for individuality. Each town must build on its unique strengths and its unique markets. What can't be escaped, however, is the need for a conscious strategy for commercial survival.