Cover Story: Employee exodus
7/31/2013 4:26:37 PM
By Craig Howard
First, there was "Skedaddle to Seattle." Now comes, "Make a break from Liberty Lake."
While Spokane County's easternmost city might be known as a regional destination for everything from golf courses to a world-class trail system, commuters to the city are not tarrying long after the 5 p.m. whistle sounds - at least not according to a recent study by business students at Eastern Washington University.
At the June 4 City Council meeting, representatives from EWU's Business Capstone program presented findings from a study that analyzed consumer habits of out-of-town workers commuting regularly to Liberty Lake. The research is part of retail incubator project being proposed by EWU.
A pilot study by students first examined the feasibility of an incubator program and was followed by a market study that explored consumer preferences through a survey of Liberty Lake citizens. Then, something called a "gap and leakage analysis" forecasted demand for local businesses by drawing parallels to a city in Western Washington with similar demographics.
When it came to the topic of commuters, the study found that roughly 6,500 out-of-town workers travel in and out of Liberty Lake each day. The survey - consisting of an online questionnaire - was designed to determine consumer routines and preferences in areas like retail, dining and recreational activities.
COMMUTER STUDY FINDINGS
An Eastern Washington University class surveyed 148 of the estimated 6,500 commuters who work in Liberty Lake. Among their findings:
WHERE ARE THEY COMING FROM?
As expected, most commuters live in Spokane Valley or Spokane, but some come from as far away as Reardan or Athol, Idaho.
WHERE DO THEY GO AFTER WORK?
A whopping 112 of 148 commuters (75.7 percent) responded they are most likely to "go straight home" after work, with 14.2 percent responding "run errands." The eight remaining responses were split between "recreational activities," "shop" and a single respondent replying "dine out." The study noted that while this question reflected a typical day, more research was required into what employees may occasionally do following their work day.
WHERE ARE THEY CURRENTLY EATING?
When commuters do go out to look for food and drink, they are heading to the grocery stores (60.1 percent said "currently shop"), fast food (56.8 percent) and convenience stores (49.3 percent). These options far outpaced family/sit down restaurants (20.9 percent), although that category led the way among those who answered "would if existed," as 19.6 percent indicated this.
WHERE DO THEY WANT TO EAT?
The commuters were asked what they were looking for in a restaurant, and "place to talk" and "affordable" far outclassed other preferences or niche categories such as "family dining," "fine dining" and "sports bars."
WHAT SHOPS OR SERVICES ARE LACKING?
The study asked about several types of businesses that could be attracted to Liberty Lake and how commuters would feel about patronizing those businesses. In the category of "would shop if existed," the following categories received the most responses:
1. Sporting goods (28.4 percent)
2. Electronics (23.0 percent)
3. Boutiques (15.5 percent)
4. Automotive (13.5 percent)
5. Barber shops (6.1 percent)
Students went to local businesses for permission to survey their employees - the questionnaire itself generally took between five to 10 minutes to complete. Many of Liberty Lake's largest employers checked off to participate in the project, including Altek, Itron, Liberty Lake Portal, Center Partners, Meadowwood Technology Campus and Huntwood Custom Cabinets.
The study found that the vast majority of commuters to Liberty Lake hail from nearby locales like Spokane, Spokane Valley and parts of North Idaho. Males comprised nearly 70 percent of respondents in the survey.
While those who facilitated the survey acknowledged that the data may fall short of an adequate representation (a total of 148 commuters completed the inquiry) and additional research needs to be done, the feedback indicated that the majority of commuters are more likely to go straight home after work.
While commuters do opt to shop at fast food, convenience stores and grocery stores while in town on a typical work day, the consensus from the research is the city is lacking a sufficient number of family-friendly or sit-down restaurants that are affordable and provide a setting for conversation.
Some dining establishments are well aware of the trends pointed out in the survey and have been trying to do their part to change things.
"It's our biggest challenge - to get customers in here after 4 p.m.," said Chareese Youngdell, co-owner of the San Francisco Sourdough Eatery on Appleway Avenue in the Heartland Mall at Liberty Lake.
Chareese and her husband, Randy, took over the restaurant from the previous owners earlier this year. One of the first specials offered at the business was a 20 percent discount for those who brought in a receipt after 4. The couple - whose son, Riley, manages the store - also extended the hours from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The business previously closed mid-afternoon.
The sandwich shop is still offering a $4.99 meal special (regular $6.99) from 3 to 7 p.m. and has seen a slow, but steady increase in post-lunchtime traffic, according to Youngdell. She said one of the keys to drawing commuters and customers in general is "to become part of the community." The restaurant has been following its own advice, with representatives appearing at a City Council meeting earlier this year, pitching a tent at the Liberty Lake Community Yard Sales and offering coupons while the store was being renovated.
"You can't always expect your customers to come to your door - you have to go to them," Youngdell said. "If you know how to market, you know what your sales are going to be."
The Youngdells own and operate another San Francisco Sourdough site in Rathdrum where they live. Shortly after they purchased the Liberty Lake store, they went about refurbishing the interior, which now features 10 tables, seating for 40, plenty of natural light and the friendly ambience mentioned frequently in the survey by commuters as a sought-after trademark of a good restaurant.
"It's a good location," Youngdell said. "I'd say 85 percent of our customers now are from the area east of Albertsons. We're glad to be in such a unique and beautiful community."
While the Youngdells are proactively generating business among commuters, the study found that potential proprietors of tap houses, hair salons, dry cleaning establishments and dessert shops might want to look elsewhere based on the lack of interest indicated by survey respondents.
On the other hand, research showed that automotive service shops are currently drawing the best response among commuters willing to spend money in Liberty Lake. As for future retail sites with the best chance to succeed, the survey pointed to stores specializing in electronics or sporting goods. In stark contrast was the manifested level of commuter interest in local recreational activities - almost none according to the questionnaire.
The survey found that retail activity might be different if some sort of discount card or special offer coupons were part of the shopping scenario. A total of 64 percent said they would be interested in securing a bargain. The city of Airway Heights experienced success with such a discount card several years ago.
As for ways the city might help support local commerce, students recommended methods of increasing awareness such as a business appreciation day in Pavillion Park, a weekly business flyer and stories and updates in a municipal newsletter.
"This has been very beneficial to the city," Mayor Steve Peterson said after the presentation on June 4. "It expands our understanding of what is going on and what we might be able to implement."
Students also advised that the city collaborate with the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce - now with its main office in Liberty Lake - on strategies to better market local businesses. Eldonna Shaw, president and CEO of the Chamber, who was in attendance for the presentation, voiced her support of the idea.
"We'd certainly be interested in anything that supports local businesses," Shaw said. "We'd be very happy to work on a project."
Council Member Cris Kaminskas recalls bringing up the importance of supporting local businesses and creating new retail opportunities when she first interviewed for a place on the governing board. She said the survey simply reiterated what most already knew.
"We don't have enough of the right things here to keep people here," Kaminskas said. "I would much rather spend my money right here in Liberty Lake, but we end up going out of town a lot because there aren't the right kinds of things here. I think we have the people here, especially in an area like the River District. It's just a matter of getting people to commit to the investment."