Retail

Saving Main Street: Cambridge Group Addresses Hard Times

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Michael Kanter and his wife and have owned and operated Cambridge Naturals near Harvard Square since 1974. That’s 46 years of retailing before the challenge of his or anyone’s business lifetime hit with COVID-19. And while the center of the city’s shop for vitamins, herbs, teas and other wellness products could have opened last week as Massachusetts eased lockdown regulations, Kanter has had to make the “painful” choice to stay closed. When a business has hundreds of customers a day in a small space, and many of them are dealing with some kind of health condition, he didn’t see a manageable way of opening.

“Nothing we are doing now is easy or remotely secure,” he says. “That noted, speaking as just one business owner, we are doing everything we can to keep our businesses and our awesome employee team going. In many ways it feels as if collectively and individually we are on a precipice. The financial mess, the job losses, the university closings, the numbers of people who have left town (maybe for a long time), the businesses that have already closed for good, and the ones barely open, really the darkened storefronts are very depressing. It is all very haunting and at the same time it all seems daunting.”

Kanter is a member of Cambridge Local First (CLF), a nonprofit network of 400-plus local and independent businesses in the city across the Charles River from Boston and home to Harvard and MIT. Its mission is to “support, promote, and celebrate a ‘local economy community’ by educating the public and government about the significant environmental, economic, and cultural benefits of a strong local economy.” As the pandemic moves on and hopefully out of town the group has had to take on a different role for its members.

“I’d say before the pandemic our goal was to strengthen programming,” says CLF Executive Director Theodora Skeadas, “and our programming is around our three-pronged value proposition, which is educating consumers on the importance of shopping locally, serving as a resource to local businesses and advocating for local businesses at the policy level, and building partnerships.”

All of which was off to a great start. Skeadas prides herself and her organization on marketing. Cambridge Local First has one of the largest social media presences in the city with more than 20,000 followers across various platforms.

“We have been the premier marketing channel for businesses during this time,” Skeadas says. “I don’t think any business, very few have a social media presence bigger than ours.”

Then the pandemic hit.

“What has happened, has actually been fascinating,” she says. “On the one hand, our businesses are experiencing a real existential threat. So we started weekly community calls to lend any advice or help that we could. Then my workload tripled or quadrupled depending on the week. So it has been an interesting opportunity. And the opportunity that I did not foresee is that there’s been significant greater collaboration between business associations in Cambridge.”

That collaboration led to a support group and sharing of best practices for up to 70 Cambridge business owners.

“We’re providing a space for information sharing and peer-to-peer learning,” she says. “And we do it in a way that no other organization has done or is positioned to do. And the reason that we’re so well positioned is that we’re citywide. We’re focused on small businesses. We are approachable and we’re at the intersection of so many and we’re connected to so many different organizations that we can serve as this focus point for so many different stakeholders on that call. We had business owners, we had nonprofit entities, but we also have folks from MIT and Harvard. All these different stakeholders have been coming together.”

Now that Cambridge is reopening, Skeadas and her team are taking it day to day. Her board members and business owners are too.

“As a business owner in Cambridge for nearly 30 years, I have seen some ups and downs in the marketplace,” says board member Rachel Solem. “Like the rest of us, I have never seen anything like this. I know many businesses will not survive it. It is possible that my own will not survive this stretch, regardless of how well we are appreciated, how hard we try. CLF has been an extremely helpful resource as I navigate government loans, the Mass DUA, social media, and the general marketplace. Independent businesses do not have the resources larger businesses do. Owner/operators wear many hats: finance, human resources, marketing, compliance, planning, bookkeeping, customer service policies, etc. CLF has offered assistance in all of these areas, through its education, advocacy web site and social media efforts.”

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