Monday, January 9, 2012

SMALL BUSINESS AMERICA STILL EXISTS AND IS THRIVING




“Buy Local,” was the slogan of ad campaigns that ran throughout the holiday season to encourage shoppers to patronize their local retailers to boost their businesses, as well as local economies. “Shop local” has become the tag line in many ad campaigns, including social media and blog mentions. Across the nation, small businesses are finding strength in numbers and feeling optimistic again, hoping that American consumers will realize the value of the independent business owners and their role in the economy of the nation.

For the small retailer, today’s market is incredibly competitive. At a time when big box seems to be swallowing up the local retail scene, there’s a strong movement towards shopping local to help encourage economic growth, but also to find meaning with consumers and how they spend their dollars and their time. This movement has growing, from grass-roots campaigns like the 3/50 Project to the food industry, which has been promoting locally-grown/raised for the past decade and has been partly responsible for the growth in farmers’ markets throughout California and the rest of the country.

If you’re not familiar with the 3/50 Project, it is a campaign that was launched several years ago to get customers thinking about the value of the independent retailers in their own communities. The concept was simple. Choose 3 local/independent retailers, spend $50 in each and boost your local economy. The impact of just those simple acts of spending is profound on that local economy. For every $100 spent in locally-owned, independent stores, $68 returns to the community in taxes, payroll and her expenditures (only $43 remains if you spend in a national chain). If over half the employed population spent $50 each month at locally owned businesses it would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue.

It seems simple, but is more complex for customers to understand. The ease of shopping big box is the one-stop-shop concept and the discounted or value pricing. The need for big-box is obvious, as they offer branded and private-label products at prices that the independents cannot.  Manufacturers also have relied on the big-box to expand their reach to the consumer markets and to increase their own presence on store shelves. That is a value offered to consumers in terms of price and volume. But the large retailers homogenize the product mix and reduces the variety offered to consumers and consumers are noticing. 

Today, fashion consumers do want uniqueness. While, they want to be a part of the “trend,” they also want pieces that speak to more individuality and exclusivity. Big box can’t offer this. The independent retailer has the ability to  offer a greater variety of unique products, without being locked to the rules of the major apparel brands, therefore they can carry one-of-a-kinds, along with the brands that pull customers into their stores. With a major interest in bespoke, hand-made and one-of-a-kind, the independents are experiencing renewed customer interest.

Unfortunately, the online formats are also offering this and competing with independents for sales. The increase in online retail formats is a reflection of consumers deviating from the pull of the big box and seeking uniqueness and variety where they can find it. The internet, a tool at the fingertips of today’s customers, is spotted with online-only retailers and the numbers of retailers online are on the rise.  Another emerging trend is the pop-up stores, which are focused in areas where there is a large consumer following in specific markets.  The pop-up offers exclusivity, limited editions and a cool-factor to the shopping experience.

There is a need for all types of retail formats, but especially for the local, independent retailers for several reasons. They enhance the makeup of a community, add character to the retail scene and can connect more readily and meaningfully with their customers. In terms of the local economy, they are essential. Many small business owners live in and are active in the communities in which their businesses operate. They purchase homes, food, entertainment in these communities, their children attend local schools, they eat at local restaurants and pay local taxes. These are essential factors to the growth of the local economy and they give these business owners a great steak in the success of their businesses.

According to a news release from American Express, “small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities," said Susan Sobbott, president, American Express OPEN. "There is concrete evidence that thriving independent neighborhoods lead to higher real estate values and more local jobs." The research conduced by American express showed that locally-owned clothing stores in America have staged a healthy rebound in recent years and furniture and d├ęcor stores have maintained a high percentage of the market throughout the study timeframe.

According to Sobbot, “small businesses are resilient but they face headwinds in this uncertain economy. If consumers commit to ‘Shopping Small', we can provide Main Street with an important boost at a time when they need it most. According to the Small Business Administration, small businesses accounted for 64 percent of net new job creation in the past 15 years, and more business in our local communities will drive more hiring in the neighborhoods where we live."

The greatest advantage for the independent, local retailers is their ability to offer customers services and retail experiences that the larger formats cannot. Today, consumers are increasingly seeking shopping experiences. They want to connect with their retailers. This is where the indies have an edge. With consumers who want a relationship with the store and brand, the independents can make that connection immediately and intimately.

Many local retailers have strong connections to the community, giving back in meaningful ways and most of their owners live amongst their own customers, creating lasting connections.  Like the big chains, they are embracing social media as a way to connect with their local customers. The beauty in this relationship is that it actually has value to customers, as opposed to the impersonal presence of the larger chains. Social media is empowering customers to become ambassadors for retailers, brands and experiences. The one-on-one connection made with a store owner and his/her customer is going to benefit more from this “partnering” in promoting his/her business than any big box retailer can. Independents that perfect the use of social media will see strong gains in customer loyalties and, in turn, sales.

Though many locals have been wounded in these recessionary years, some are making a strong come-back by adjusting their inventory, product mix, services and methods of doing business. In many cities and towns, it’s the local retailer that ads the character and diversity to the area and provides for the much needed variety and mix that is lacking in big-box retailing.

The challenges faced by the small retailer are not insurmountable, nor are they to be ignored. This country was built by entrepreneurs and our economy is boosted by local businesses, especially retailers.

Stockton and the surrounding areas have a strong legacy of local retailers who have sustained the good and bad times and whose roots are firmly anchored.  While the city gets an enormous about of bad press, given the economy, housing market, crime rate, and other challenges, the small retailers have hung in through tough economic times and are thriving in a challenging economic environment.

With a strong history in the fashion retail world, as well as being a former small retail owner myself, this is a subject that is close to my heart, my history, my emotional perspectives about the industry and my personal relationship with the shopping experiences in today’s retail market.  Personally, as a shopper (an a pretty critical one), I want the money I spend to mean something, so a business owner who acknowledges me by name and values my business will keep my business.