High volume causes low success rate for downtown business

For a student going out on a Friday night, or spending a weekend afternoon downtown, Athens seems bustling with opportunity and entertainment, but for those who run the businesses—it’s not as easy as it looks.

“There was nothing easy about opening the business and we are still learning things everyday,” said Ashley Becker, owner of Flirt Fashions, a boutique downtown.

She cites the economy as a factor in her struggle to find quality lines of clothing at a good price, but she also mentions unexpected obstacles.

“The weather is also a huge factor in our business which we never would have expected because if it’s cold or rainy no one walks around,” said Becker.

She feels that retail stores are the hardest business to keep afloat in a college town.

“Bars are more successful because of the population of students and because of football season,” she said. “There are also many more bars than retail stores or restaurants in Athens.”

However, according to the Athens Downtown Development Agency’s website, Athens is home to “65 specialty retailers, 55 popular eateries, and 40 taverns and nightspots.” Assuming this tally is kept current, this would disprove her theory.

Chris Walker, owner of Last Call and The Mad Hatter, argues that the volume of bars in Athens is a bad thing for bar business. It spreads the customers too thin. 

Walker has been in the Athens downtown business scene for a long time. He was an owner of the original Last Call, saw it through its name change to the Library and recently, back to Last Call. 

According to Walker, the turnover rate for a bar in the downtown area is about three years. He believes the turnover is an Athens specific problem due to all the competition, and that bars that cater exclusively to students are the ones that suffer most.

“Even since 2002, the student body has changed so much,” he said, “SATs scores are higher, it’s harder to get in. All the partiers are going to places like GA Southern and Milledgeville.”

In an article from Inc. magazine on successful small business tips, Norm Brodsky writes, “Forget about shortcuts. Plan and work with forever as the goal.”

Walker believes that is a problem with many start-up bars, they are out to make money and don’t consider the long term. He also explained other factors that plague student-body bars.

“These flash in the pan places, when midterms come around, or it rains for two months, they’re in trouble,” he said.

Walker said that other college towns don’t have the problems Athens bars face because at schools like GA Southern, there are only five or six bars. Less bars means less competition and more staying power.

So what is the key to surviving in an atmosphere like Athens?

From Walker’s observation, the best way to be a success in Athens is to keep your overhead prices low, and maintain high volume. His advice is to follow the example set by Allgood, Georgia Bar and others and become popular with a diverse crowd.

“Young professionals, people in the working world, people who have their own money to spend are always going to drink,” he said. “Even in a bad economy they’ll be there drinking their sorrows, and in a good economy they’ll be celebrating.”

Walker says the effect the economy has on students trickles down and affects business.

“If Mommy and Daddy are hurting, they are going to cut back, not on rent or food money necessarily, but definitely on that extra play money,” Walker said.

The economy can help business owners too. According to Walker it is a great time to open a business or renegotiate a lease while the prices are low, which is just what he did with his new bar, The Mad Hatter. He is following his own advice in his new business venture and is marketing it towards an older crowd.

“If you have the money, and do it right, now is a great time,” he said. “Landlords are more apt to lease places at a low price, and you can establish a real solid cash flow for when the economy recovers and rent prices go up.”

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