I love local stores and mom and pop businesses. They were some of my very first clients and I was lucky enough, growing up, to live in an area that’s full of them. I love their charm, their personality, and the fact that I can get unique products that I would never get at big box chains or franchises. That’s what makes them special.
Part of why I love local stores is why I’m about to deliver what may be a very bitter pill to swallow: This “buy local” movement has gotten completely out of control.
I’m not opposed to “buy local” insofar as it being something people want to do. Indeed, it’s a very viable (and possibly crucial) marketing strategy to compete with cheaper corporate chains or stores by promoting your goods based on unique advantages of small businesses: Being locally grown, handmade, exceptional service, much more value for the price. I can get behind that.
The problem is an increasing and worrying trend of people pleading or shaming others into supporting local businesses. Even worse is the assertion that we should support local businesses because otherwise they won’t exist.
I first started doing business in a small Connecticut town. The Chamber of Commerce director, a delightful person, was interviewed by the local newspaper. Amid the usual updates on what new businesses were coming to town and who had left, she had this to say:
“We all shop online, we all look for discounts,” she said. “But New Canaan, please, please, please take advantage of the stores here for some of your shopping. We must frequent the shops in town or they will not exist. They are having a difficult time competing with the internet.”
I have several rebuttals to this line of thought. Before I get to that, let me address customers who may feel guilty shopping at a chain or a big box store: You aren’t obligated to shop anywhere. You aren’t a charity. Businesses need to look out for themselves, sure, but that’s also your job as the customer.
Now to the rebuttals. Let’s tackle the big one first.
You are a business and you need to earn your success.
You may very well be dire financial straits. The cost of doing business may have gone up and you may be getting undercut by Amazon. Wal-Mart may offer your exact same products for a third of the price. Here’s the problem, though: It simply isn’t the customer’s job to care about any of this. The customer’s role in the buying process is to find the best deal for the customer. If they’ve decided that Wal-Mart has a much better value proposition, you’ve got to live with them going with the better deal.
More importantly, antagonizing or shaming your customers isn’t going to get them to do business with you, and you’re misdirecting your blame. The way you can use this to your benefit is to understand what your customers are telling you. If there are reasons why people aren’t shopping with you, address it. Get in the game.
Your business is not special by virtue of being small.
There’s this prevailing belief that local businesses, by virtue of their being so small relative to industry titans, are above reproach. I find that to be a cowardly way of not living up to your own expectations as a business. All it does is ask customers to change their habits to serve you, rather than you evolving to serve customers. If your business won’t exist if customers don’t provide you business, that’s exactly how the system is supposed to work.
There is nothing inherently worth protecting when it comes to your business or any other, be it mom and pop or Fortune 100. You may have the ambition or interest to grow your business into a billion dollar company and you may not have venture capital backing. That’s fine, but again, customers don’t care. Customers see one thing: What offers the best value proposition for what they want to buy? This leads me directly to…
Price is not the only way to compete.
If it were, Apple would have gone out of business years ago. If you’re a small business you have a lot of unique advantages that big businesses will never have. Focusing on price as a selling point misses the forest for the trees and prevents you from leveraging those advantages. Non-price competition can involve competing based on your experience, quality, service, and consistency.
Internet: Serious Business
If your business is being undercut on the Internet, it begs the question of why you aren’t on the Internet yourself. It’s the year 2015 and if you aren’t keeping up, you’ve missed the train and you’re about 20 stations behind. 87% of the United States alone is on the Internet. Even when it comes to E-commerce, this isn’t 1998. You can set up a basic online store for free in less than ten minutes. If you can’t bring your customers to you (and it’s a fool’s errand to think you will) then go to your customers. Don’t try to bend the world to your way of doing business. As a business it’s your responsibility to adapt and change, regardless of how much of a local institution you are.