Such appears to be the case regarding the analysis of Rome’s retail market done by the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center’s Division of Applied Research and presented Thursday to local leaders although the data was released earlier. It can be viewed/downloaded in full at RN-T.com (visit this column online to see the PDF) and, like most scholarly statistical efforts of this sort, is about as much fun to read as a legislative budget report.
Like many outside looks, this may not quite fall on its face but at least scrapes its elbows because no allowance is made for Rome perhaps not being a place like all other places.
Basically all this “analysis” consists of is a comparison of the expenditures completed in the heart of Greater Rome (a 10-mile radius or such a distance as the crow can fly from downtown/Broad Street) with a database of somewhat comparable cities, in this case three in Georgia (Thomasville, Cartersville and Decatur) and three elsewhere (Asheville, N.C., Florence, Ala. and Columbia, Tenn.)
This doesn’t really account for Rome being the core of a regional trading center for a population of perhaps 300,000 and pulling customers routinely from 20, 30 even 40 miles away (depending on direction, of course). However, if somebody from Summerville buys something within 10 miles of downtown (for example, Mount Berry Square Mall which is 5 crow-flight miles from City Hall) it should show up.
IN DEFENSE of the UGA bean counters, they are aware of the problem as, when confronted with numbers that simply do not mesh with visible reality — fast-food/catering sales are $19.1 million over what is expected but sit-down full-service restaurants are $5.5 million less than the comparative norm — Gwen Hanks, director of the division of applied research, conceded: “Given what’s now there, that’s a little difficult to believe. I can’t really get behind the why, I’m just reporting what the data says.”
What’s missing is indeed any “why” or a concurrent peek into the sociology of Greater Rome that a pure reliance on numbers drawn from sales-tax receipts cannot show. Think “fast food” is high in a time of families headed by two breadwinners, both very likely to be working in Rome and getting dinner for the kids on their way out of town? Then consider what doesn’t show: breakfast and lunch served in schools, not only subsidized but also free of sales tax.
As for the full-service places, clearly a bit pricier than the ones with drive-thru windows, it is hard to get into many of them and everybody can name the major missing chains that have been slow to arrive perhaps because not all that many customers drive 20 miles just to eat — and driving 20 miles makes up a huge part of Rome’s sales churn.
There also seems a lack of awareness — in the numbers, not on the part of the bean counters — of a thing called the internet with its “online” purchases, many of which are invisible to the tax collectors. Not enough electronics stores? Really? We had more not long ago; went belly-up. Other than mainstream products, much in the way of electronics is sold from an internet that has everything, not the limited stock a local retailer can afford to keep on the shelves.
IT IS THIS way up and down the study list, which supposedly is expected to be viewed as a list of opportunity areas for entrepreneurs and sales pitches alike. No doubt “more” by way of local sales would have huge implications, particularly for government that gets a tax skim off the top. Indeed, the analysis totaled up $116 million in sales that appear to be going elsewhere resulting in $8 million a year less in government revenues.
Actually, this sort of analysis is replete with dangers for unwary investors although, fortunately, that breed tends to do a great deal more looking before leaping.
Few, for example, would likely jump to fill the perceived gap in furniture stores. That’s mostly humorous because 50 years ago Romans were complaining that there was nothing else downtown. Those are mostly gone now, of course (another just having announced it is closing after a long run). That was a time of “good furniture” being prized whereas now practical furniture at a low price is the sales leader — and found not only at Rooms to Go and Ikea (neither within 10 miles of downtown, of course) but also Walmart, Big Lots and similar and perhaps tallied as part of this community’s strong “general merchandise” category.
Much of the under-served list of items is like this ... easily explainable if one lives here, bewildering if one doesn’t.
Not enough gasoline stations? They’re kidding, right? But if sales volume is less than expected perhaps that has to do with all the “commuter customers” fueling up at home where the gasoline is always at least 10 cents a gallon cheaper before coming to Rome.
Not enough “beverage stores”? Don’t think they’re talking soda water but there is sure no lack of availability (even on Sunday) though having much of the population with a “dry” heritage could be a factor.
NOT ENOUGH hobby/book/music stores? Pardon? Nowadays those are heavily known as Amazon/iTunes/etc. and no, they don’t have brick-and-mortar local outlets in Rome ... or anywhere. One even wonders if when Barnes & Noble, which this community does have, makes a downloaded sale to a local Nook customer if that winds up on the “sold in Rome” list.
As for the discovered $100.8 million gap/ shortage in supermarket sales, does that mean when the new Publix finally opens it can pour $100 million through its cash registers without Kroger and other existing rivals losing a penny in sales? Or does that mean Greater Romans have a taste for frugality and grits to better line up with incomes far less than where a Whole Foods can be found?
This is a unique community insofar as economics and consumer appetites go. Every place is, to a certain degree. Comparing dollars spent elsewhere to preferences shown locally is not necessarily the best or wisest of investment approaches. Knowing who the customers are and what they hunger for in sufficient numbers to create a profit is the sort of analysis of economic opportunity that might be really valuable.
Indeed, such a study would be very much worth doing. This particular data, if consumed with a liberal dose of hot sauce, might even have a bit of edible meat somewhere on its bones. But it is no substitute for the real thing, which remains to be attempted.
SUCH COULD only be done locally and by folks who have lived in these parts for a while. In fact, the only thing they might find puzzling is why there aren’t even more barbecue places around ... and gun shops.