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Fascinating story in Sunday’s New York Times about the two-year old Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, which was formed as a kind of support group for owners of the small, resolutely independent retail units in the state that were built before 1927; there are 100 such stores in Vermont, of which 55 have joined the Alliance.

While such stores “have long been a Vermont way of life,” the NYT reports, many are “threatened by the minimarts and large grocery chains that have driven some of them out of business in recent years,” and have decided to band together for emotional and business support and for strategic and marketing heft that they might otherwise not have.

“The alliance, started with state grant money and sustained by annual dues of $50, holds meetings every few months and is supported by the Vermont Grocers Association, a lobbying group,” the paper writes. And the Alliance also is moving in the direction of developing its own proprietary brand that would only be sold in Vermont country stores.

“They represent, both in terms of the present and past, Vermont's communities," Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, executive director of the alliance, tells the NYT. “They contain things that people want to buy, and they are a place that people want to go talk and meet friends. They are just a real example of those traditions in Vermont that survive not because they're cute but because they're necessary.”

As necessary as the tradition might seem, the NYT notes that these retailers have to remain both current and relevant if they are to survive, and that this is an ongoing struggle within the economic framework that defines modern retailing.
KC's View:
The folks at the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores ought to reach out to the folks at Raise The Bar, a California-based organization that is doing much the same thing for independent grocers there – providing support, developing proprietary brands, and helping its membership meet the demands of modern consumers.

The most important thing that the folks in Vermont seem to have realized is that simply being traditional and historical isn’t enough – you have to be aggressive and ambitious, and provide consumers with a compelling reason to shop your store. Such a reason isn’t always price…but as we’re find of saying, “compete” is a verb. You have to empower yourself in these situations, not wait to be empowered by others.

By the way, y’think it is just a coincidence that earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the entire state of Vermont on its 2004 list of the most endangered historic places in the United States? Clearly, these independent retailers aren’t depending on such moves to protect them…and they are actively working to defend their turf.