Locally Owned Businesses: Superior Businesses

Locally owned businesses, aka independant businesses, aka Mom and Pops, are superior to big box retailers in so many ways. Even though I believe this with every nerve in my body sometimes I forget the nuances and subtle qualities that really drive this point home. I’m guilty of shopping at chains and non-locally owned businesses like 99% of America but I truly and wholeheartedly try to shop locally whenever reasonably possible. I go to Porter Square Books to get all my books and if they don’t have it, I order it. I go to Diesel Cafe for my coffee. And when I shop at Trader Joes’s (yes, I know they’re not “local”) I buy organic foods and coffee beans etc, all in an effort to support whatever and whoever I’m told I’m supporting! Unfortunately I don’t have any locally owned pharmacies near me, so I go to CVS. On rare occasions I may go to Starbucks and I’ve been guilty of shopping at others, like Target, Home Depot, whatever. But I really try to avoid it. This past holiday season Ali and I did 90% of our gift shopping at local businesses. Some stuff we just had to buy otherwise, like a specific Brookstone gift. Unfortunately the days of local grocers are mostly gone, but we do try to shop at local butcher shops and farm stands and such. I do not like Home Depot and I try very hard to go to locally owned and operated hardware supply stores. I’ve learned a lot about Ace and True Value as a result of this and make no mistake about it – Ace and True Value stores are still very much locally owned and operated retail stores.

I think most of the population probably doesn’t concern themselves with this too much. They don’t intentionally go out of their way to Buy Local. When they need a new rake for their lawn, they go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. When they need a coffee they go to Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. When they need some food they go to Stop and Shop. And the national brands like those I just named have such deep pockets, they can outspend and out-advertise any local guy. They can cast so broad a net that we’re just all victims of their marketing and branding and it becomes almost instinct. You think soda – you think Coke. You think car, you think Ford. You think clothing, you think Filene’s. Ever since I was a little boy sitting in front of the TV eating cereal I’ve been bombarded with these ads. Sears, Home Depot, Circuit City, Macy’s, whatever – I’ve been groomed into this zombie consumer. MUST SHOP HERE. MUST GO THERE. NO OPTIONS.

When I was a kid I went to the same local barber with my dad every 2 weeks, I went to the same hardware store, more often than I liked. Most everything we bought was bought locally. My father is a republican, mind you (or was). He loves Nixon, loves Reagan – so this had nothing to do with politics or policy. It was how he was raised too, in NYC. Neighborhood stores in Brooklyn, the Bronx. So for me, the occasional trip to say, Child World, or Montgomery Ward was, again, occasional. It wasn’t the only choice. Heck, I don’t even remember Wal-Mart as a kid. It seemed to spring up when I was a teenager out of nowhere, but that’s here in the northeast. Anyway, I digress. Point is, I have fond memories of local stores and service providers. I don’t have memories of long and towering aisles at Sam’s Club, or grumpy people standing in lines at Wal-Mart.

So when I started CitySquares back in 2005 it was as much about local businesses, neighborhood businesses as it was about anything else. Our message is clear – BUY LOCAL. But we’re not obnoxious about, we’re not pious about it – we can’t be. And also, we ultimately respect people’s own individual rights to shop wherever they want to shop. At the end of the day, a larger portion of society does shop with their wallets. It’s nothing against local businesses, and they may even understand the value of shopping locally, but for them, it’s a matter of dollars and cents. If they can buy a box of crayons at Wal-Mart for 69 cents less than they can at a local toy store, then there are likely other savings for them and that’s ultimately what drives them. They may care deeply about the economic benefits of shopping locally – and there are many – but they have a family of four and the budget is very tight. So as far as they’re concerned, “thanks for the enlightenment buddy but I’ve got 3 kids to feed and a mortgage to pay!” And we respect that. That’s also why we continue to list non-locally owned businesses. We don’t ask them for their advertising dollars but we still put them on the website. That’s for us to be meaningful and credible.

Anyway, as you see, I’m passionate about this stuff. It’s not just a drum I’m beating either – I believe in it greatly and I believe in the importance of shopping locally as much as the next guy.

To wrap things up, I’m writing this because many people have heard me talk about it before, some people have heard me talk about it so much that it’s making them crazy (but they get it!) and I finally realized that I haven’t really blogged about it at any length. I got inspired this weekend when Ali and I had some very inspiring local shopping experiences. But I won’t get into that right now, I’m only on one cup of coffee and I feel like I could talk about this forever. But I will be talking about this more, you can bet on that.

Doing this “Local” Thing

Ali made a delicious dinner the other night; lobster ravioli with her own sherry sauce. It was absolutely delicious. I guessed that she handmade the raviolis all by herself, kidding of course (right?). She bought them at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, down the street. At Dave’s you’ll find homemade and handmade pastas – very high quality, gourmet style pastas, sauces, and a lot more. It’s a real gem in the Davis Square neighborhood. Anyway, Ali mentioned how nice the person was, who waited on her. She asked for a loaf of bread, but they were out. He then told her that next time she can call ahead and tell them what she wanted, and they’d have it all ready for her. Well… now…. that, folks, that is good service. And that, you only get from your local merchant.

The kind of service you get at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, the kind of care and treatment you get at Massage Therapy Works, at State Street Barbers, at Porter Square Books, is only the kind of service you find where the ownership is local. You just don’t get that anywhere else.

When I see reviews on Citysquares.com from members of the community, of local businesses,and when I hear stories like Ali’s, or from anyone, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of pride and honor. I’m really quite proud to be doing what we’re doing, for the community, for local commerce, from the members of the community across all areas. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else and feeling so good about it.

I’ve learned so much from Citysquares already. No matter where my career takes me in the short term or long term, I will always make sure that I’m involved in a socially responsible business.

Local Merchants and Adapting to Change

A very interesting post by John Kelsey at The Kelsey Group. Very outspoken and candid reality check for small businesses, and I happen to think he’s right on the money here. I’m reminded of a conversation I had a couple weeks ago with a gentleman in New Hampshire, who was referred to me by a mutual contact. This gentleman was shopping for a Christmas gift for his wife and was at a locally owned jewelry store in the seacoast region of NH. He went in looking for a watch and didn’t quite find what he was looking for.
<!–break–> He still purchased a watch anyway, because it was a matter of convenience. He had an idea, which he shared with me, about an inventory management and distribution system for which a business, such as this jewelry store, could access their distributors’ inventory and special order items. It was more complex than that, but that’s the gist of it. He was aware of my involvement with Citysquares and wanted my opinion on whether or not he thought there was a market for this sort of thing. I explained that while I thought there was certainly a market for it, the reality is that getting local merchants to conform to the requirements of the new technology is a tough sell. Local merchants have their own ways and methods for running their business. Surely there are some standards, like Quickbooks, or Peachtree, and some standard POS and inventory systems, but at the end of the day, they use what’s easiest and most convenient. Asking a local merchant to adapt to the pace of technology and changes around them is like asking a third world nation to adopt environmentalism – it’s a stretch. Unless you can really point out the benefits and make the proposition that they can justify a quick and measurable ROI, it’s really an uphill battle. Unless it directly affects their bottom line, they will resist change. So while I agree with John’s reality check, reality is relative. There are movements all across our country, to prevent the invasion of big box retailers and the homogenization of our communities. Ones that comes to mind is Local First and BALLE. These are not fleeting ideas run by hippies, these are serious and business minded individuals who are doing it, and doing it well (to quote LL Cool J).