In today’s economy it’s hard for locally owned businesses to compete with big box pricing and sales volumes.
Just look at what the Home Depot’s and Lowe’s of the world have done to small town hardware stores. I’m not casting judgement as to whether this is good or bad, it just is, but it definitely has consequences for places like Kent that have tried to be distinctive in its shopping and eating options by catering to the small mom and pop stores rather than the national chains.
We think there’s room for both big and small establishments in Kent, we just want to make sure it’s in the right balance for our community. It wasn’t that long ago that Kent passed on the mega-mall proposal, in part, because of this retail culture clash. And I think the popularity of Kent’s new Acorn Alley relfects the smaller, local shop preferences of the people that choose to shop in Kent rather than driving out to one of the suburban malls.
At a time when consumers have less spare change in their pockets, price points are more important than ever — and that puts Kent’s retail strategy favoring small town shops at a competitive disadvantage. How can anyone compete with the kinds of merchandise turnover that Walmart goes through every day, especially a small shop owner who could be in business for decades and never hit Walmart daily numbers.
Here’s how — by going the extra yard for customers. Shopping has become so ubiquitous today through the internet, smart phones, debit cards and every other electronic device that secretly monitors our buying habits, that even luxury items feel commoditized. Shopping is so over-merchandized that it has lost its luster.
But people still like luster and the anti-dote seems to be the shopping experience itself. The big stores try to manufacture a unique shopping experience by misting cologne in the store, mixing funky music tracks, using customized lighting, and creating displays that make you feel like you’re in a club.
The small shop owners by contrast ususally don’t have the resources to create a re-enactment of a special shopping experience so they have to do it the old fashionned way — with extra personalized service and attention to the customer. The key ingredient to the small shop is personal contact. People are yet to be completely outsourced or virtualized so great sales people can still matter.
I read a great story of a small bike shop with an owner that understood his competitive advantage in the personal touch so he always added something extra to the bike, especially kids bikes. Need a tire change, no problem, but when you picked the bike up it might have a new set of tassels hanging off the handlebars, or a new bell, new handlebar grips, etc., at no charge.
Obviously the owner had to keep the cost of the extras to a bare minimum but he was more interested in the personal connection that he would make between the bike owner, his shop, and the little add-ons that had some significance to the customer. This wasn’t purely philanthropic as the little extra would lead to referrals and repeat business — which is the lifeblood of small lifestyle business owners who did what they did, and sold what they sold, out of their own lifestyle preferences.
The extra yard isn’t so much a tactic to build and flip new businesses for profit; it’s more about long term and staying afloat in a fiercely competitive retail world filled by giants.
Small business owners defying the odds and convention; that’s classic Kent.