The Cabarrus Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Concord will launch a six-week “Retail Lab” accelerator this September to support local entrepreneurs and small businesses in Cabarrus and Rowan counties.
The Retail Lab will target entrepreneurs who want to launch a brick-and-mortar or e-commerce business in the retail, food, beverage or entertainment markets, as well as existing retailers that want to expand their market channels through digital marketing, e-commerce or other strategies.
The first cohort will include 15 to 20 participants, who will walk away from the program with a comprehensive plan to get their ventures off the ground—from creating a business model to handling tax and legal documents to marketing their products online. Upon completing the Retail Lab, they'll have the opportunity to apply for $2,500 to $5,000 in grant funding and will test their retail concepts and merchandising strategies in pop-up retail locations.
Leading the program is Winston-Salem's Flywheel Coworking, which manages the Cabarrus Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Flywheel opened the center in downtown Concord last March with 20,000 square feet of private offices, coworking, and meeting and event space. Flywheel also has a coworking space in the Lake Norman area, located in the Jay Hurt Hub for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Davidson College.
Flywheel Coworking Co-Founder Peter Marsh, who is leading the Retail Lab program development, says the idea originated as an opportunity to use a portion of the Cabarrus Center with street frontage on Union Street in Concord.
"The entrepreneurship service organizations that are part of the governing council for the Cabarrus Center embraced the idea and we have now expanded it to include Concord, Kannapolis, Mount Pleasant and Rowan County, as well as Cabarrus County," Marsh added.
Marsh says the Retail Lab will include 12 modules, with lessons covering business model development, real estate, insurance, licensing, taxes, labor considerations, business strategy, customer discovery and market research, retail point of sale and other business systems, inventory and supply chain management, branding, marketing and sales strategy, digital and e-commerce marketing, event marketing, brand loyalty, customer service, and more.
"Owners wanting to start a retail business will have a strong foundation in main-street retail practices as well as e-commerce opportunities," Marsh says. "Existing retailers will be exposed to best practices, benchmarking and e-commerce opportunities to take their businesses to the next level."
The program aims to spark an expansion of the retail base surrounding Charlotte. According to data from the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Cabarrus County was home to 1,525 retail businesses in 2020, earning about $2.4 million in retail sales. And Rowan County housed 968 retail businesses netting $1.4 million in sales last year, per NC Commerce data.
The Cabarrus Center recently launched a survey to gauge the primary needs of existing retailers and ensure the curriculum is tailored to their demands. The survey also aims to gain insights from retailers' experience that will be useful for new retail business startups.
"There is strong interest in the program among existing retailers, and our thoughts about [the] curriculum are being validated," Marsh said of the survey.
Marsh says the Flywheel Foundation will provide initial funding for the Retail Lab through its corporate sponsors, including Charlotte-headquartered banking giant Truist, and grant funding from the Wells Fargo Foundation and the Durham-based NC IDEA Foundation.
The content will be delivered on Flywheel’s Learning Management Software and through personal instruction at the Cabarrus Center on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mentors in various retail specialties will be assigned to the companies.
Instructors will be sourced through the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College Small Business Center, local merchants and other partners. Marsh says downtown development managers will market the program to their constituencies, while the Flywheel Foundation will secure the financing and administrative staff to implement and manage the Retail Lab.
"The applications will be reviewed by the participating organizations and economic development officials and screened for readiness for the program, ability to commit the time and resources, and potential for community impact," Marsh added.
The program is set to launch in September. Marsh says he hopes to run two cohorts per year going forward.