Retail resources at Iowa State University

This blog begins a new series for you from Iowa Retail Initiative. One of our founding goals was to provide information about assistance for retailers that is available across the Iowa State University campus. Our university is a big place, and we have lots of experts across a wide range of topics. But to be honest, it can be difficult to find all the pockets of expertise that are available. We’ve done some legwork, talked to people, and gathered some interesting information to share with you over the next few months!

Today’s blog post focuses on resources available from the Value Added Agriculture office.

IRI Co-Director Susan Erickson recently sat down with Value Added Agriculture Program Manager Ray Hansen to hear about their programs that might benefit Iowa retailers.  Hansen reported that the most visible and widely applicable resource is the feasibility studies done through his program.  Their Business Consulting page provides some details here.

Because the program comes through USDA, these feasibility studies are only available for rural areas of less than 50,000 population.  This is most of Iowa’s cities, as only 11 of 944 cities in Iowa have more than 50,000 population.  Feasibility studies act as a neutral third party audit of a business plan to help in economic justification and decision-making for business start-ups.  Hansen’s office has done feasibility studies for a wide range of businesses, including

  • small manufacturing facilities,
  • bakeries,
  • grocery stores,
  • nursing homes, and
  • hotels.

There is a fee for the feasibility studies, and the fee varies widely, depending on the complexity of the business plan, the depth of the review, the need for external consultants, and number of hours required.

Feasibility studies are not the only retail-related resources from the Value Added Agriculture office! The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) is a national virtual resource center for value-added agricultural groups. The purpose and mission of the AgMRC is to provide producers, processors and service providers with critical information to build successful value-added agricultural enterprises.

On a recent visit to their website, I found helpful information for entrepreneurs gathering information on starting businesses on a variety of topics:

  • hosting rural weddings
  • clay target shooting facilities
  • wine trails
  • alpaca fiber
  • aquaculture
  • blueberry production.

Just about any agricultural product you’re interested in has information available.

The Value Added Ag office also offers several other signature programs, all described on this page.    MarketMaker is a national network of states that connects farmers and fishermen with food retailers, grocery stores, processors, caterers, chefs, and consumers. It is an ever-growing partnership of Land Grant Universities, Departments of Agriculture, and food and agricultural organizations investing in a coordinated effort to build a virtual infrastructure that brings healthier, fresher, and more flavorful food to the average consumer.

Market Maker works to help create strategic partnerships between producers, businesses, and consumers.  As Iowans become more discerning in their food choices, this may be a great way for retailers to market specialty produce, meat, and seafood products.

There are several other signature programs that may be helpful to Iowa retailers from more narrow demographic segments. Annie’s Project is an educational program empowering women farmers and ranchers with the skills and knowledge they need to help make their operations successful.  There is also a Women in Agriculture program that provides assistance to women all along the path from production to processing.

As you can see, the Value Added Agriculture office has a myriad of resources available for business startups in rural locations, as well as good research-based information on marketing agricultural products of all kinds. Contact any of the staff to find out more about their offerings.

Retail Specialist Wanted!

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is looking for a qualified candidate for a Retail Business Specialist.  This candidate will provide technical assistance and consultation, develop educational curriculum, and deliver educational programs for retail business owners and for communities seeking to build stronger local retail economies.

Does this sound like you?  We would love to receive your application.  Please check out this opportunity.  The guaranteed application consideration deadline is December 11, 2016.

If you are interested in the position, please visit the ISU jobs site for information on how to apply and for more details.ced-fs-i-ii-retail-announcement6

Getting ready for Small Business Saturday

Small Business Saturday is on November 26 this year! This day is dedicated to supporting small businesses across the country. Following on the heels of Black Friday shopping, this day is an opportunity to add some color and fun to the shopping experience.

According to SalesFuel,  23% of US adults shopped at a locally owned business on Small Business Saturday in 2015.  Of course more local shoppers would be even better, and there are some strategies you can use.  img_4447Sales Fuel, in a survey of 15,906 shoppers, found that 37.9% of CyBer Monday shoppers would prefer to shop at a small, family-owned or independently owned business, if price and product quality are similar.  They recommend that small businesses remember to embrace and entice online shoppers, reminding them of what they love and miss about shopping on Main Street.

Knowing your customer is crucial for successful retailers.  It’s important to know that millennials (those born between 1977 and 2000) are the largest segment of customers (by age) on Small business Saturday.  Millennials make 21% of consumer discretionary purchases.  This is an important consumer group to reach for small business Saturday!

Small Biz Trends suggests 5 steps you can take to make sure they come into your store on November 26.  Which of these can you work on right away?

  • Start now to create a marketing plan with consistent outreach from now until Small Business Saturday.
  • Make it mobile—provide free WiFi in your store and be sure your website has mobile-friendly landing pages.
  • Give your business website and local search presence an update. Be sure your store is listed on local search directories, and that the information is complete and accurate both in search results and on your website.  Your address, hours, and phone number are extra-important.  If you have special holiday hours, keep them updated.
  • Be social. Millennials are 57% more likely than the average shopper to take action based on an ad on a social network.  Facebook advertising is quite affordable and effective.  Pair that with a strong Instagram presence for good social media coverage.
  • Send the right message. Millennials crave the unique and individual.  Emphasize what makes your store stand out from big box retailers.  Your store should offer personal service, friendly staff, excellent product knowledge, and a careful selection of merchandise.


The National Retail Federation forecasts November and December sales to increase 3.6% in 2016.  They also report that nearly everyone will purchase gifts for family, while 71% will purchase gifts for friends, and a third will purchase gifts for co-workers.

So buckle up and get ready for the holiday shopping season, retailers!  Stores that pay attention to their customer base, their online presence, and what makes them unique, will surely reap the rewards of their labor.

Top 5 Reasons Your Business Should Be On Yelp

Today’s blog post is written by our Undergraduate Research Assistant, Jessica Dyer. She will be working with the Iowa Retail Initiative during the Fall Semester 2016.   Here’s a little bit about her.  Her hometown is Springfield, Illinois. While at Iowa State, she is studying Apparel Merchandising with the goal of becoming a stylist. Jessica wants to style for either magazines, advertisements, or e-commerce. Jessica spends her free time being an active member in the on-campus magazine, TREND, and is involved with the University Honors Program.  Outside of school, Jessica works as a Style Advisor at Justice and as a Video Teller at First National Bank. Joining the Iowa Retail Initiative was of interest to her because she likes the unique products that entrepreneurs often come up with and enjoys shopping locally.

Today’s post looks into claiming your business on Yelp.

So you haven’t claimed your business on Yelp, the only logical question is – why not? By claiming your business on Yelp, you can utilize the many benefits that this platform has to offer.

1. Control What Is Said
By claiming your business on Yelp, you can control the description of your company as well as manage comments by others. This feature allows you to make sure that only accurate and valid information is published.

2. Respond To Comments
People are able to make comments about your business on Yelp. This may be a multitude of things; from how wonderful your customer service was to ways you might be able to improve your business structure. Not only will you be able to read these comments after claiming your business, but you will also be able to respond directly to the comments, either publicly or privately.

3. Share News
If you have exciting news about an event or offering that your business has, you can never publicize that enough, right? By claiming your business on Yelp, you will have another platform for sharing the news of your company and attracting more customers.

4. Improving Visibility
Your business will have a boost in visibility on Yelp. When people search the Internet for the top things to do in an area or a certain type of establishment, the top results often pull from Yelp. By this improved visibility, you will undoubtedly generate more sales, which is the goal, right?

5. Photos
By claiming your business on Yelp, you can post photos. The beauty of photos is in the common saying, “A photo says 1,000 words”. Photos allow your company to come to life for the viewers and make it more real to them. With a better understanding of your business and its structure, customers are more likely to visit and end up frequenting your establishment.

Although you just read five of the main reasons you should claim your business on Yelp, there are many more. So the real question is, why are you still reading this and why aren’t you on Yelp?

To learn more about how to claim your business on Yelp, visit this page.

Shop local

spencer-galleryAre you tired of all the political talk? November 8 can’t come soon enough for me! Voting in our political elections is important. Some people say your local political races are the ones that impact your life the most—and where your vote counts the most.

It’s the same with shopping. Voting with your dollars is another way of letting your opinions be heard, and for shaping your own corner of the world.

Have you ever stopped to consider the importance of shopping local? Consider these reasons to shop local, and think twice before shopping at a national chain store!

• Shopping local keeps dollars in the local economy. Your dollars cycle around the community, rather than heading to out of town corporations.
• Local businesses create and sustain local jobs.
• Local businesses provide choice and diversity. Regional character is preserved and diversity is maintained at local businesses.
• Preserve Main Street. When people think of their favorite shopping experiences, they tend to think of quaint Main Street shops. Who gets enthused about going shopping at a big box store?
• There are environmental benefits, too. Local stores help to sustain walkable downtowns, which in turn help communities to reduce sprawl. When our communities are conducive to walking, we drive our cars less—and as a result people are healthier, our air is cleaner, and valuable wildlife habitat and farmland are preserved!

Those are some of our favorite reasons for shopping local. What are some of the reasons YOU choose to shop local?

Remember to vote in the political elections on November 8, and remember you vote with your dollars every time you make a purchase!

Cultural Differences in Retail

20160405_230558 Hui-Siang Tan is the author of today’s blog post.  She is a Ph.D. student studying Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University.  She was part of the Iowa Retail Initiative for the first few years.  We thought it would be interesting for Hui to share some reflections on the differences between retail in her home country of Malaysia and in the United States.  Let’s see what she has to share with us!

Retail provides job opportunities and economic development to the local community. Taking advantage of being an international student majoring in business retail in merchandising and apparel, I was able to experience hands-on working practicums and developing professional managing skills in retail management after receiving my bachelor degree in the U.S. in 2004. These practicums and learning experiences collectively inspired my interest in continuing to study entrepreneurship for my doctorate degree at Iowa State University.

In this blog post, I would like to discuss and share some of my thoughts about retail business in my home country of Malaysia and in the U.S. Working in both countries, I learned that retail is all about selling. Therefore, the art of selling is an essence of the business, and the keys of selling include retail merchandising, visual merchandising and store design, customer service, and omni-channel marketing.

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Students work in Marshalltown

The Iowa Retail Initiative works to provide and connect Iowans to resources to improve retail in their communities. One of the ways we do that is by matching community development needs with student learning activities. Here’s the story of a retail interior design class from Fall Semester 2015.


image001Thirty-three Iowa State junior interior design students worked with 13 local retailers in Marshalltown to propose design recommendations for the local retail stores.  To address the local diversity in retail offerings half of the participating retail locations included diverse ethnic stores.


Students first visited their Marshalltown retail location in August to conduct a site visit.  The two student design teams met with the store owners to learn more about the store, their customers, the merchandise, and any needs the store owner would like to address.  During this first site visit students documented the current store design through sketching and photography.

Students then went to work in Ames to customize design recommendations based on their findings during the site visit.  The students addressed seven specific categories of retail design including: storefronts and entrances; planning and circulation; merchandising; materials and finishes; lighting; graphics; and behind the scenes spaces.  Students returned to Marshalltown at the end of September to present their recommendations to their retail partners during an open presentation event.


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Some of the positive feedback from the retail owners included:

  • Students were professional and thorough
  • Design proposals were creative
  • Proposals gave owners new ideas that included easy to implement changes and long term goals
  • Some retailers began implementing some proposal changes including grouping merchandise

Are you interested in a similar project in your community?  Contact Program Coordinator Susan Erickson at <> to discuss the possibilities!









Getting There – Creating safe and pleasant routes to your downtown

IRI founders come from diverse backgrounds.  Today’s post is written by IRI founder and landscape architect, Tom Neppl.  He is a lecturer for the College of Design at ISU.  Tom’s blogpost today helps us think about downtown in new ways.  Our downtowns are about much more than banners and adequate parking spaces!  See what Tom has to say:

No place is perfect. Each small town faces individual but similar issues that threaten vitality and character. But, what are the issues? Are there too many cars? Are motorists driving too fast? Is the area unsafe for pedestrians? These questions and others need to be answered to identify and address existing problems.

Understanding the problem or range of problems is the first step in developing effective solutions.Ames main street

A survey administered by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Street Coalition found that 66% of Americans want transportation options, 73% feel they currently have no choice but to drive, and 57% would like to spend less time in the car. So, there’s a demand for alternatives to driving downtown.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people are willing to walk to destinations but they want safe routes. With that in mind, how can we enhance existing routes and create new ones to make them safe?

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s Design Manual for Small Towns provides the following strategies to address problems in small communities:

CrosswaIMG_3797lks. Clearly marked crosswalks indicate to pedestrians the proper locations for crossing roadways. They also contribute to pedestrian comfort and create important linkages in the community’s pedestrian system. Visibility matters! A ladder pattern or a solid pattern of color in the crosswalk is more visible than the commonly used two parallel lines marking the edge of the crosswalk. Lighting should also be provided to increase sight distance at night.




Trails. Sharing the road with vehicles can be dangerous and creates an uncomfortable setting for the rural bike lanepedestrian and the cyclist. Trails provide pedestrians and cyclists a transportation network dedicated specifically to them by removing the pedestrians and cyclists from vehicular traffic. The result is improved safety for all users. Trails can also be used to provide links to parks and other natural areas through the creation of a greenway.


Bike Lanes. Similarly with trails, bike lanes provide a dedicated location for bicyclists to ride and intend to reduce conflicts with cars and pedestrians. The difference is bike lanes are typically integrated within the vehicular roadway. Bike lanes are recommended only on streets where traffic speeds are 25mph or less. Lanes can be between five to six feet wide and can be striped within roadways that have ample right-of-way space. Bike lanes are typically striped along the right edge of the roadway.

Landscaping.  Strwalkability 1ong landscaping has the potential for many positive effects on vehicular, bicycling and pedestrian routes. Landscaping enhances the street environment by projecting an image that the street is part of a place, rather than a “through route”. Proper landscaping can increase neighborhood ownership, commitment to place and can improve property values. Additionally, landscaping provides separation between motorists and pedestrians can reduce the roadway’s effective width causing drivers to slow down and can increase the driver’s awareness of the immediate environment.

Individually or collectively, these strategies contribute to safe and pleasant routes to a community’s downtown. For other ideas, resources and case studies, visit the Project for Public Spaces  and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Register now for the 2016 Iowa Retail Initiative Summit

04_Vertical-Full-01Registration will close this week for our FREE June 23 retail summit.  Don’t miss this opportunity! The summit will connect local community retail and economic leaders with resources  to help develop thriving communities. Community leaders will also share their retail and economic needs with Iowa Retail Initiative directors, and check out other communities at the Community Showcase.

The goals of this summit are to provide an opportunity to learn about the Iowa Retail Initiative, resources available to Iowa’s communities, and showcase the great communities across the state.

Registration is required by June 10th for attendance and meal count. Please find the agenda and registration here.

Use the comments box below to ask questions.

What’s the retail situation in your city?

Iowa State University has resources in the Department of Economics to help you stay up to date on retail trade information.  Fiscal Year 2015 retail trade analysis reports are now available from the Iowa Community Indicators Program (ICIP) website. These reports are produced annually for all counties and most cities with 250 or more residents.
New for this year, we’ve also developed an interactive application to explore broad retail trends across Iowa. The statewide overview shows long-term trends in total taxable sales. The MSA overview compares sales levels for Iowa’s nine MSA regions. The county overview shows average per capita sales and 30-year trends on a county-by-county basis. The peer group compares average per capita sales levels for rural counties, metropolitan core counties, and three other county groups. Find the retail overview here, and let us know what you think.


Highlights from this year’s analysis include:
• Iowa’s taxable retail sales collections topped $37.5 billion for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015, up nearly 3.9 percent over the prior year on an inflation-adjusted basis.
• Iowa’s 21 metropolitan counties captured 68.6 percent of the state’s total taxable retail sales in FY2015.
• Statewide real sales per capita grew by 3.3 percent over the prior year, averaging $12,040 during FY2015. Metropolitan counties averaged $13,604 in per capita sales, while non-metro counties averaged $8,903 in per capita sales.
• Clay County had the highest per capita average among all counties, with $17,814 in per capita sales.

We’re always happy to answer questions about the retail trade analysis reports, so please call (515-294-2954) or send an e-mail ( to Liesl Eathington in the Department of Economics if you have questions.