How Small Businesses Thrive in a Big-Box Economy

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Image credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

National chains have enamored customers with repeat online auto-ship discounts, grocery pickup services all to make consumer transactions convenient. So how can small businesses compete? By taking a different approach.

These days, consumers can pick up their groceries without ever entering a supermarket and schedule repeat shipments of their pet’s must-have treats and toys for a discounted price. Services like grocery pickup and auto-ship continue to attract consumers to big-box retailers, but it’s what they do not do that may matter most. These popular features of superstores do not bring customers into the store at all. On the flipside, small brick-and-mortar retailers keep customers coming in by offering a different kind of experience. By connecting with customers through more than an app, small businesses can stand out in the big-box economy.

The recent trend toward grocery pickup and auto-ship makes sense. When customers could instead order most items online with free, two-day shipping and just one click, a trip to the big-box superstore becomes just an unnecessary hassle. In other words, customers now need a better reason to visit a store than simply needing to make a purchase.

The small business experience

That’s where small businesses come in, offering the opportunity for more than a transaction. Independent record stores specialize in hard-to-find albums and host live music events that bring music lovers together. Family-owned hardware stores share generations worth of expertise, providing customers with product recommendations and how-to tips that withstand the test of time. Locally-owned gift shops, jewelers, sporting goods stores and others win customers over with unparalleled customer service that makes customers feel welcome.

In each of these ways, small businesses connect with their customers on a meaningful level. They keep the shopping experience personal and engaging, where superstores have long thrived on detached, do-it-yourself browsing. The detached approach may lead to a higher volume of transactions, but, as every small business owner knows, quantity is no substitute for quality in the long run. Nor is the feeling that you’ve really been helped.

Take Trio Hardware, for instance. The Long Island hardware store suffered a devastating fire several years ago, destroying its Plainview, New York, location. Wanting to keep the small business in their community, customers soon flocked to the store to aid in the reopening efforts. Volunteers physically carried Trio’s merchandise from the damaged storefront to a new, larger location several shops away. When the business needed to expand to another new location last year, volunteers again pitched in to keep the business moving.

Building connections

The connection that small businesses build with their customers is invaluable. It leads to repeat customers, word-of-mouth marketing and, apparently, some much-appreciated sweat equity from the most devoted of neighbors. The contrast created is striking: While big-box retailers and national chains resort to dealing with customers at arm’s length, small businesses like Trio Hardware see customers literally lending a hand to help.

To build and maintain this connection, small businesses should continue to focus on customer service, specialized expertise and engaging experiences for customers. These are the qualities that keep customers coming back, cultivating goodwill and trust among consumers. They are the qualities that offset the big-box quantity.

The big-box economy has reached an important turning point. Can national chains keep customers enamored when the transaction becomes a chore? Grocery pickup services and auto-ship discounts attempt to make transactions convenient once again, but small businesses take a different approach. By offering a genuine experience – complete with professional recommendations, attentive service and an inviting atmosphere – small businesses concern themselves with more than the transaction. They sustain their customer relationships with more than periodic software updates. In return, their loyal customers will sustain their independent, brick-and-mortar shops in even the biggest, boxiest economy.

Bill Brunelle

I am the co-founder of Independent We Stand, a nationwide movement of independent small business owners whose mission is to inspire other small business owners to better understand and celebrate their locally owned status while educating consumers about the importance and strong economic benefits of supporting them.

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