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FORT WORTH-Tomorrow, the Buxton Co. officially launches its newest product, SmallCityID, aimed at easing the trials of the hard sell by small towns looking to lure retailers inside their lines. Beta-tested in three small cities over the past six months, the product is debuting at the Texas Municipalities League annual conference in Corpus Christi.

“Small towns have come to the reality that they aren’t going to get manufacturing,” says Bill R. Shelton, a Buxton partner for its CommunityID product. “Therefore, they’re looking for economic development alternatives and retail pops out.” But, selling a small town isn’t an easy job.

Shelton, a certified economic developer and former president of the American Economic Development Council, knows the dilemma all too well. Small town leaders don’t know where to look, which retailer to approach and often can come up short on selling their case in a world where profit drives the decision. SmallCityID is an offshoot of Buxton’s CommunityID, a comprehensive retail and restaurant identification system for retail recruitment by cities and counties.

Shelton tells GlobeSt/RETAIL that the idea for SmallCityID came from leaders of small towns who eyed the promise of CommunityID at 39 trade shows last year, but then would explain their budgets, their economic incentives and their needs were vastly different than cities with populations of 75,000 or more.

SmallCityID was beta-tested in Bridgeport, TX, population, 3,915; Grinnell, IA, population, 8,902; and Lawrence County, AL, population, 31,513. The testing went outside the Texas line because “we know what necessarily works in Texas doesn’t necessarily work elsewhere,” Shelton says.

SmallCityID compares similarly sized towns in terms of what exists and the potential and then delivers a customized presentation with a prospective retail list. Bridgeport, which followed Buxton’s program, is getting a grocery store. “We’re saying you don’t go to Kroger or Albertsons, but here are the ones you do go to,” he explains about conjuring up a formula for success. And though small towns lack the power punch of its big sisters to forgo taxes as an incentive, they can employ measures like land buy-downs and ensuring utility infrastructure is in place as bait, Shelton says.

The Buxton product is debuting in the midst of a trend by national retailers to adapt stores and strategies to reach out to markets that they would have turned their backs on just a few years ago. Trend-setting retailers are packing small-format stores into portfolios to make it cost-effective to expand in secondary and tertiary markets to gain new customers. Nationals now with bragging rights to small-format designs are Chili’s, Applebee’s, Wal-Mart and Home Depot. And, more traction is sure to be gained since research is showing that people are now balking about driving 20 miles or more to shop, Shelton says.

The latest city to ask for help is Evans, CO, with a population of 16,400 in 7.2 square miles. In the past month, the bedroom community, just north of Denver, contracted for a CommunityID package to match buying habits and lifestyles in the Evans trade area with core customers for specific retailers and restaurants. By the end of January 2005, Buxton will hand the city a list of up to 20 retailers, the most likely prospects for a positive impact and its best chance at success for getting more retail in town.

The CommunityID team has completed projects in 100 cities and counties in 27 states since 2002 and has been contacted by more than 500 cities and economic development organizations. Though Texas is the stronghold, Buxton has landed contracts with 25 California cities. Since Proposition 13 went into effect, leaders from 150 California cities have contacted Buxton about retail perspectives to offset the loss from frozen property taxes. “California cities are seeing retail as the only alternative to return revenues,” Shelton says.

CommunityID and SmallCityID pinpoint buying characteristics of the community, define the trade area and provide demographical comparisons to similarly sized towns. The Holy Grail is the list of retailers most likely to come to town. The customized packets are put together from Buxton’s proprietary software, which mines 185 databases, and the firm’s 3,500 retailer profiles.

Shelton says the flagship product, CommunityID, has exceeded all expectations. The product has made Buxton a partner with the National League of Cities and only one of two private US companies to be accorded the honor.

Until CommunityID, Buxton most often was contracted by retailers and developers for customer analysis and site selection. The 10-year-old firm’s client roster, which numbers 600, includes Pier 1 Imports, Kinko’s Tony Roma’s and the Container Store. The 100-employee company, headquartered in Fort Worth, has representatives in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orlando, Fresno, San Diego and soon in Atlanta.

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