A small retailer makes a bold move against big chains

Photo: Atlas Wines & Liquors
Dec 02, 2016

Steve Rowen

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

A recent ad I heard on the radio from a Massachusetts liquor store caught me off guard in its stunning candor-as-a-business tack.

Atlas Liquors, with three stores, loves to tout that they’ve been family-owned since the end of prohibition. Most of their folksy spots tell you about whatever special they are running.

This ad was different.

“Ever travel and notice that so many cities look the same? Strip malls, box stores, huge chains. It’s almost formulaic the way some of these places look — like if there’s a Petco, you can guarantee there’ll be a Panera in the same plaza.”

Whoa! They named names.

“Boston’s always been a wonderfully diverse city with tons of neighborhoods, unique from one another. But lately, it feels as if we’re losing that charm. Pockets of the city that were once home to small independents are being reconfigured. With soaring costs, it’s more and more challenging for us independents to be successful.

“When you’re next running your errands, think about the difference it makes to our retail landscape when you support the independent retailer vs. the box store or a massive chain. As third generation owners, my brothers and I are keenly aware that there are many places you can shop and we’re hoping that the importance of supporting smaller independent retailers like us here at Atlas will resonate with you.”

I’ve seen lots of techniques employed to steal business away from chains, but never “because they have no soul and are destroying what made your neighborhood likable” before. The ad never even mentions prices, and I’m guessing because with giant “high touch” liquor chains like Total Wine popping up all over my fair city lately, the implied notion is that you will, indeed, pay a few pennies more at Atlas.

Finally, Small Business Saturday wasn’t mentioned because, if you like having local small businesses, you’re going to have to shop there more than one day a year. And in an age when so much seems out of the control of our individual hands, that is one thing we can absolutely effect — directly.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should local retailers be more direct in spelling out alleged community disruptions caused by supporting national chains? What risks do independents face in aggressively bashing national chains?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This message won't work for every small retailer but it certainly works for this one. "
"...almost to a fault, we are increasingly becoming a nation where people seek approval on the basis of the fact that they are not the other."
"I don’t think it’s a problem for local retailers to be more direct in bashing national firms; I don’t think they have anything to lose."

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24 Comments on "A small retailer makes a bold move against big chains"

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Bob Phibbs

I started my business as the Retail Doctor 23 years ago bashing Starbucks which you can read about in my case study here. We emphasized local without saying “pity us.” These guys seem to be doing the same thing. It’s always great to market against the devil when you’re the angel. I applaud their creativity. I might add my client’s sales went up 50 percent the first year and 40 percent more than that the second and led to a profile the New York Times. People love the story of the little guy beating the big guy.

Cathy Hotka

What a great story.

To answer the question, independents face no risk at all in bashing the uniformity and predictability of big chain retailers. Independents may not be able to match the prices of chains, but their quirkiness and ability to engage with customers are important advantages that chains will struggle to emulate.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Regarding how to compete with Walmart, Sam Walton famously said: “If everybody is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction.”

There is nothing wrong with a retailer taking a contrarian position to differentiate. In an ad, it can be highly effective to get customers to try something new, once.

In the facts reviewed in the article, there is nothing to suggest that this retailer has differentiated a sustainable proposition that will make customers want to come back. What is it about their selection, staff or store that makes the customer experience unique, different and better than the national chains?

If you bash the national chains, you better have some compelling ways to stand out, both in the store experience, and in the online experience that follows you home after the sale.

Max Goldberg

Local retailers need to highlight the benefits they provide to the community as well as the unique nature of the experience they offer. Atlas chose to bash the big boxes, but not to mention why they are better — a mistake. I see this campaign having limited success.

Bob Amster

Independents suffer no bigger risk counter-playing big chains than they would if they sat and did nothing. Big chains are a real challenge to independents but independents can defend themselves and promote their cause by appealing to their immediate or local constituency and by providing the more personal service to which their customer base is attracted.

Adrian Weidmann

I like the bold approach. Those of us who are well traveled can relate to the description. When traveling to a new location somewhere in the U.S. and driving our rental car back to the hotel after our meetings we’ve all noticed that, with retail clustered around an interstate highway cloverleaf interchange, you could be anywhere in North America. Your sense of community identity and geographic location are placed in suspended animation until you reconnect with the “real” location. It’s like traveling through a cultural worm hole.

Perhaps Atlas Liquors is on to something. Reminding people of their sense of belonging and community may inspire more people to financially support the local entrepreneur — their neighbor.

Ken Lonyai

Interesting campaign approach indeed! I like it because, for Atlas, it doesn’t seem like there’s much to lose. My instinct is that most people will nod in agreement yet be unmoved and won’t change their purchase habits, a tiny minority will be offended, and some, who the message resonates with, might give Atlas a try. A prolonged campaign, though, will likely wear out its welcome.

Jasmine Glasheen
Jasmine Glasheen
Principal Writer & Content Strategist, Jasmine Glasheen & Associates
2 years 9 months ago

I’ve always been an advocate for candor, but in the past two years the American public has come to mistake pettiness for honesty. Atlas didn’t even name their direct competitors. What does a liquor store gain from bashing Petco and Panera? This commercial says absolutely nothing about the quality of their products or service. Perhaps Atlas owners decided that conjuring up a bout of whimsical malaise would be good for the company’s liquor sales? Pointless move.

Anne Howe

I love this willingness be be truthful. Business owners need to stand for something, and community really does matter to many residents in big, sometimes faceless suburbs. Well done.

Dr. Stephen Needel

I think Steve Rowen has overstated the content of the ad — they do not talk about soulless entities destroying the neighborhood. Nor are they aggressively bashing national chains. They are pitching three generations of local operations and that’s a great pitch.

Tom Redd

No risk — the campaign just has to deliver the value message and create a desire for the prospect to visit the store. It takes some good copywriting that will flow on multiple mediums — late night TV ads and radio. Radio is the best place and a lift is being seen in the number of listeners.


Tony Orlando
Excellent story, as this applies everywhere in the country. I believe we should stand up for our business in ways that focus on our strengths against the big box stores. I am currently putting together our Christmas holiday list, which I just published on my Facebook page, and all of these items can not be bought in the competitors’ stores as the competitors do not produce homemade food. This is one way to get people interested in coming to your store. The problem we face in my business is the enormous amount of stores that sell food, whether it is a dollar store, drug store, limited assortment store or superstore, along with every gas station/convenience store. It is extremely difficult to sell staple goods in the center aisle, and it is imperative that I focus on fresh foods, as it is our strength. Yes we are local, but in a poor economy loyalty is at an all time low and consumers are shopping at four or five stores to get the deals, and not one… Read more »
Lee Kent

For small businesses, pointing out the differences is key. If not being a big box is the way they want to differentiate, that’s OK. This ad does work on several levels. First that the company has been around since prohibition says that they are doing something right. It also speaks to their connection with Boston. Because of those things, the ad does not come across as bashing.

This message won’t work for every small retailer but it certainly works for this one. IMHO.

And that’s my 2 cents.

Ryan Mathews
I agree with Max. As our most recent election demonstrates, almost to a fault, we are increasingly becoming a nation where people seek approval on the basis of the fact that they are not the other. In the election it was, “vote for me because I am not him/her,” rather than, “vote for me because I have the following plan.” I really do get what Atlas is saying, but they presumably aren’t competing against Petco or Panera. What would they think if Panera started advertising that you should eat there because they don’t co-locate on blocks with liquor stores? Sure, all true city lovers despair at the sameness of certain urban and suburban commercial landscapes. Part of the charm has gone out of neighborhoods that used to be wholly defined by small and/or ethnic entrepreneurs. But if you are going to “name names,” you ought to address authentic and meaningful consumer issues, otherwise its a form of capitalist McCarthyism. So if Atlas wants to call out other companies, why not start by telling people why… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

The family owners’ dinner table conversation becoming a core theme of their advertising is very short-sighted. A mention of competitors is good publicity for the competition (sorry for the PR 101 statement), so the small family business is better off focusing on what’s in it for consumers and how their offering is better through convenience, education, special orders, advice and pricing.

Shawn Harris

I don’t think it’s a problem for local retailers to be more direct in bashing national firms, I don’t think they have anything to lose. However, I think that these retailers need to assess their businesses and make sure that they truly have a unique selling proposition for customers. Specific to Atlas: price (very regulated in Massachusetts, but be competitive, explore bundling), convenience (consider adjacent partnerships with startups like Drizly for home delivery, offer click and collect), product (vertically integrate and have in-house alcoholic and craft beer brands, gain exclusives) and community (“what are you doing for the community?”). Due to their scale, nationals typically win out by simply being better at the basics of selection, price and convenience. Hopefully, businesses like Atlas are spending more time and money on unique selling proposition strategies and not just on attack campaigns.

Meaghan Brophy

It’s never a good idea to try and make yourself look better by bashing someone else. There is something to be said for the loss of local community and the same-ness of retail developments across the nation. However, Atlas could have made the same point by stressing their presence in the community since the prohibition era and the relationships they’ve developed with locals. Instead of focusing on the negative of big box retailers, Atlas should focus on the positive qualities of their business such as superior service, selection, etc.

Shep Hyken

Local can be a huge advantage. I don’t believe in bashing the competition (national chains), but instead pointing out differences. Ace Hardware has done a magnificent job in not just surviving, but thriving alongside the big box competition. How do they do it? By creating value where the national chains don’t. It’s their helpful service, the ease of getting into and out of their stores, the community involvement and more. They are a model of how independent and small retailers can compete against national chains.

Doug Fleener

I don’t see any bashing or anything like that. I see a simple ad where someone asked the listeners to shop local. I agree with others it would be better if they gave a reason on why they’re better.

But here’s what’s interesting. I’m not sure there are many or any chain liquor stores here in the Boston area. (Disclaimer: I do live in Great Boston, but I don’t shop in liquor stores.) I know every liquor store in my community is locally owned, and liquor and beer isn’t sold in the grocery stores.

So kudos for a unique shop local message, but I’m not sure who they’re telling the customers not to shop with.

Craig Sundstrom

Is more negativity really what the world needs?

Of course it can be argued that I myself am being negative in interpreting the ad this way, but I think retailers are better off emphasizing their positives — explicitly — rather than claiming they aren’t something negative.

(As a side note, a “Total Wine” recently opened near me, and aesthetically it’s a world ahead of the Atlas shop pictured … so I’m not sure how credible the message is.)

Naomi K. Shapiro

I see this as nothing more than reminding shoppers about localness vs. the existence and ubiquity of big chains. It doesn’t bash chains nor praise them. Calls attention to the small store which might otherwise be overlooked.

Larry Negrich

Deliver a better total customer experience and the world will beat a path to your door, if you are also well priced and in convenient locations. There is a certain amount of value in the “local” characteristic to a certain group of people and for certain product segments but I would advise any retailer not to lean too heavily on local without also offering other significant differentiators. Retailers dealing in commodity products make leveraging local even more difficult to pull off.

Kenneth Leung

Nice move. Especially with the business with no ecommerce competition, it is down to the relationship with the customers in a store face to face setting. The message comes across genuine and it isn’t too forceful/negative. Ultimately the store will need some differentiation from service or assortment that will keep customers coming back, not just a slogan.

George Nielsen
2 years 9 months ago

I do not mind the message, but I wonder about the medium. A radio spot to me is not the most appropriate to appeal to a local audience when you have only 3 locations in the Boston area. A mail out to the neighborhoods around each store might be more effective.

"This message won't work for every small retailer but it certainly works for this one. "
"...almost to a fault, we are increasingly becoming a nation where people seek approval on the basis of the fact that they are not the other."
"I don’t think it’s a problem for local retailers to be more direct in bashing national firms; I don’t think they have anything to lose."

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