The retailing environment in North America is becoming more brutal with each passing year.  At one point in our history the independent, family owned store was the backbone of our economy.  These small businesses provided an intimate shopping experience.  They lived or died on their ability to satisfy their customers, and by successfully competing with the family owned store next door.  It was an even playing field.

That started to change innocuously enough with the introduction of shopping malls, corporately owned department stores, and strip centers which in turn are now morphing into what is referred to as lifestyle centers, those elaborately designed outdoor malls with street lamps and cobblestone lanes.

The free-standing “big box” stores were the next to enter the fray, bringing with them the ability to direct import product without middlemen, negotiate unheard of prices from their vendors, and in the process create enormous headaches for the independent retailer who obviously has no access to these tools.

The straw to break the camels back was the World Wide Web, enabling the consumer to shop in their pajamas on Black Friday rather than contend with the jostling insanity on the streets.  In conjunction with that we can now purchase our books and music via downloads from multiple sources.

So what is an independent retailer to do?  Here are a few suggestions.

1.  Entertain or die. Approach managing your store the way Disney sets up a theme park.  It is all about the experience.

Folks like to brag about how they don’t have to leave their homes to shop, but they actually are looking for a good reason to do so.  It has been proven that working from ones home, while convenient, lacks one significant component – the ability to socialize and intermingle with others.  Hermits prefer a cave, and they probably represent less that one-tenth of one percent of the typical consumer.

The folks that brag about not having to jostle with other consumers to purchase the products they love are the same folks that could easily satiate their spiritual needs by downloading sermons on their iPhone4s, but they don’t.  Instead you see them in church on Sunday getting what they could just as easily get laying at home in their bed, but it is the need for interaction with others that gets them rolling on a Sunday morning.

2.  Promote or die.  There are countless ways to promote.  If one has the budget to do so, one can advertise in print media, radio, or direct mailings.

We have discovered that to proactively garner e-mail addresses and build a strong following through Facebook has allowed us to promote with the click of a mouse with zero expense other than the labor to create a promotion.  What we used to accomplish through the mailing of postcards to our database at the cost of $7,000 has been replaced by e-mail and Facebook.

3.  Diversify or die.  If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is a mantra that needs to changed to if it ain’t broke, break it!  Retail is a moving target.

The consumer, even if they were appreciative of what you’ve offered in the past, is constantly looking for a new “experience”.  One doesn’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Maintain the core of your business; build on previous promotions, but constantly look for new and innovative product offerings and promotional concepts.  Look for ways to pleasantly surprise your customer.

4.  Separate or die.  Don’t even dream about competing with the mass merchandiser.  Never consider attempting to emulate what they do.  Work hard at drawing a distinction between what you, and independent retailer has to offer, verses the big box.

Made in America is becoming a deciding factor with many consumers.  Offering personalized products is not in the cross hairs of the big boys.


It is December, the biggest month of the year for retailing.  Leave no stone unturned.

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  1. Janice Meeks says:

    Good one, Petey! And one that I’ve experienced first-hand, both as a consumer (I LOVE independent, locally-owned shops and LOATHE Wal-mart) and as the manager of a locally-owned and managed business. What you say is very true. However, if the owner of the store is not on board, then you’re riding a sinking ship. It would (might?) be a pleasure working with you in a business run by the principles you espouse. . . makes me nostalgic for the days in retail . . . ALMOST makes me long to go back there . . . but not quite!

  2. Leila Bolster says:

    Yes, I agree with shop local. This is our neighbor. We know him/her and they have to live in our community. If they are cheating me or taking advantage of my they lose my business or I go in and talk to them about it and they are motivated to change their ways. I like to get my fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market knowing that they are picked fresh, not stored for long periods of time or dipped in wax. I like local eggs — produce my own with a nice little flock of chickens or get them from a neighbor with a nice clean coop and know they are well fed on organic produce and feed also produced locally in our Rogue Valley. I don’t like eggs that I know were produced in cruel conditions no matter how cheap they are. Honey is also another product I would not buy any way other than local as commercial Honey is imported with all the pollen removed and some with harmful antibiotics in it. The meat I buy from my friends is fresh and has a flavor like no other. My salad is carefully picked with baby lettuce and herbs and is topped off with a few nasturtiums for a piquant flavor. The Tuna and crab I get in trade from a man on a fishing boat for teaching his wife English and helping her over the bumps of our society while he is out to sea. I think it fulfills the Scripture to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

    So Pete, if your store were anywhere near where I live, I would certainly be shopping there for Christmas.

    God bless

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