Despite my years of training in business school and the strategy consulting world, where I learned that profits come from scalability, I’ve always had a fondness for mom and pop stores. I’m a big advocate of independent bookstores and make sure I support them through purchases when I can. And I’m always sad when I go to a new city, looking to buy unique items, only to find yet another Zara or Gap with the same things I can buy at home.
It is no secret that independent stores are dying out. For instance, ten percent of independent bookstores in the UK closed in 2009, according to the Booksellers Association.
And, often communities vote for larger stores, such as Wal-Mart, because they offer affordable prices. Despite concerns from some members of the community about the effects Wal-Mart would have in Brooklyn, nearly 80,000 people still signed a petition in support of it.
So, in this age of conglomerates seeking ever larger profits, is there still a market for small stores? The internet, with access to the global marketplace, is helping to ensure there is.
1. Expanding markets
The internet can help create worldwide markets for unique items. Etsy.com does a lovely job of creating a vast marketplace for craftspeople, and companies like Garmz.com help democratize fashion design.
2. Banding together
Another way the internet is helping is by allowing providers to band together to create viable alternatives to big stores. Consider London-based Hubbub, which allows East London residents to place orders from several local shops and have them delivered all at once. It has the same principle but completely different experience to Amazon.co.uk’s grocery service, which at launch was delivering items at several different times, making it infeasible for the typical working consumer. Where Amazon fell down and Hubbub is succeeding is by ensuring co-located shops work together.
Though Hubbub only operates in some parts of London now, its model is ripe for scalability.
3. Celebrating diversity
Though they haven’t tapped the internet yet, stores are encouraging customers to go to other independents. Local London coffee shop Prufrock established a ‘disloyalty’ tour, offering free cups of coffee to those who have visited several of their competitors. A group of coffeeshops in Toronto have replicated the idea.
So, small stores are recognizing that they have to think big to survive, but are being refreshingly creative about how to retain their fundamental character while doing so. Could this potentially mean that more of our main streets reverse direction and host increasing numbers of independent shops?