Independents Get Weird to Compete

Discussion
Mar 22, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


One person’s unique is another’s weird. Either way, it’s not the same-old-same-old and independent retailers in small and medium-size markets across the U.S. want consumers to
know that their businesses are the only thing standing between them and a landscape filled with cookie-cutter chain store sameness.


Billboards and bus cards are going up in communities such as Austin, Tex. and Louisville, KY. urging locals to “keep their hometown weird.”


As told in a message on The Louisville
Store Web site
, “Keep Louisville Weird is a grassroots public awareness campaign, recently and quietly begun by a small but growing coalition of independent Louisville business
owners who are concerned with the spreading homogenization of our hometown.”


To “Keep Louisville Weird,” consumers are urged to “patronize independent, locally-owned businesses wherever and whenever possible, and encourage others to do the same.”


A similar program in Raleigh, N.C. titled “Raleigh Un-Chained” has attempted to educate consumers on the value of shopping at local businesses. According
to the Raleigh Un-Chained Web site, “Shopping locally keeps nearly three times as much of your money in your community
than shopping at chain stores,” which means more money is put into local jobs and public services such as schools, roads, etc.


One of the founders of the “weird” movement, David Bolduc, owner of the Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo., told The Associated Press the campaign isn’t intended to
paint chain stores as the bad guy but to make consumers aware of what local businesses mean to an area’s identity.


“The point is to bring into the conversation how things are being homogenized,” he said.


Ellen Tolley, a spokesperson for the National Retail Federation (NRF), believes chains and independents can successfully co-exist. In many cases, chain stores may be good for
local businesses as well as shoppers. “Consumers are after good values,” she said. “They may go to the large store for everyday items, then stop in the smaller store for that
special item or gift.”


Moderator’s Comment: Are most locally-owned, independent retail businesses in your area unique enough to support the claims made by the “Weird” campaign?
What does it take for a retailer to be really weird? Which independent retailers are on your weirdest list?

George Anderson – Moderator

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13 Comments on "Independents Get Weird to Compete"


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Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

A “weird” example that immediately comes to mind is our local Montclair Book Center, an independent fixture in the town that draws folks from all over North Jersey on the merits of being an “anti-Barnes & Noble”. It’s a cavernous old building with tin roofs and worn wooden floors. Shelves are ramshackle and reach to the 15 foot ceilings (with rickety ladders provided). Dusty used and new books are liberally mixed in room after room of eccentrically departmentalized selections. The staff is slovenly, but helpful and extremely knowledgeable. It’s a great place to treasure hunt volumes that would never be found on Amazon or at BN.

As in this case, the strong independent spirit thrives in operations that don’t necessarily recognize their own weirdness. They’re just doing what comes natural.

Karen Ribler
Guest
Karen Ribler
15 years 11 months ago

I go out of my way to shop at independently owned businesses. For the most part, aside from friendlier service, the products are not necessarily unique. But the shopping experience is! If you measure weird by product knowledge and by interest in assisting the customer, then these independents definitely fit the “weird” label.

If I were to create the campaign, I would shine a bright light on the fact that these businesspeople differentiate themselves by giving the customer time and solutions. Their operations feature caring personnel that take the time to try to satisfy the customer’s purpose for being in the store. This is true of the little hardware store we frequent, the “gourmet” grocery and a local bookstore where we look forward to shopping.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 11 months ago
Sadly, local independents in my area have not been strong enough to hold off the chains. The real estate simply got too expensive. As much as possible, I frequent independents, but in my area, it’s nearly impossible. I have been known to drive from CT to MA, VT and NH just to find things that are a little different. My town is too small to have its own downtown, but the neighboring downtowns (there are two I consider local) have turned into outdoor malls. In fact, in Fairfield, very sadly two independent jewelry store owners were just shot, the same week a local food market, which had been a mainstay practically since the beginning of the last century, closed. That downtown is very “down” as it were as a result. Borders, Chico’s, and Victoria’s Secret take up most of the rest of the real estate at this point. Even downtown Hanover, NH has turned into a chain mall. A favorite – Northshire Books in Manchester, VT – just expanded, so I am hopeful that it’s… Read more »
Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

This movement is wonderful and I predict it’ll grow into an avalanche. But pendulums swing like pendulums do…and retailers cannot forget the basics in their quest for weird.

What attributes credibility is the same for a retail shop as for an individual. It’s built on Character (your integrity — do you do what you say you’ll do, stick by your values, etc.?); Content (do you have the substantive goods, services and/or information people want?); and Charisma (do you have a WOW factor; are you a fun place to shop?)

The weird movement is most related to Charisma which is great and way overdue, as long as the other two dimensions are kept equally strong. Here in Arizona, we could use some retail weird!

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

Karen made one excellent point, about real estate prices driving independents out. This obviously suggests that the chains are getting better ROI per square foot, and it behooves independents to search for any lessons to be found. Having said that, the “Weird” campaigns are wonderful, and can add some real zest to things. With the right entrepreneurs, nearly anything is possible. Karen, The Compleat Angler (fly fishing store) somehow is still in downtown Hanover, but otherwise you are totally correct. The only things missing are Starbucks and a Disney store. It’ll take courage for independents to step “out there,” and I hope the Weird movement gives them courage and inspiration.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
15 years 11 months ago

I divide independents into two classes – let’s call them the “good” and the “bad”. In the good category is my local 15,000 square foot hardware store, which is big enough to find what you need and able to compete with Home Depot by having very knowledgeable staff. In the bad category was a local IGA – just out of business – which never could understand that, with higher prices and smaller assortment, they needed to be a couple of levels better on customer service. Instead, they closed up shop and blamed it on an inhospitable landlord. Also in the good category is a local group of entrepreneurs who bought an abandoned downtown theater, refurbished it to the hilt, and now show art movies. The old line independents are just hanging on hoping retirement comes before bankruptcy, while the new thinking independents are looking for unmet needs and serving customers well.

Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
Being kind of a word guy (not a weird guy!, I hope), I took a look at good old Webster’s because I felt uneasy about the word and my perception of intended use. Interestingly enough, part of the definition is to experience an odd, unusual and sometimes uneasy sensation. I wouldn’t think that’s a positive – would you? Another is one’s assigned lot or fortune, especially when evil. Now, I know that’s not it. Okay then, what is it? Ah, there’s another part of the definition that relates to fate; destiny. Now those are the words that could relate well to the theme. Keeping ‘weird’ means keeping life as we know it then, right? Or enhancing it. Or, controlling or encouraging one’s fate or destiny. Now, that’s a worthy pursuit. Certainly one couldn’t argue, however, that total isolation with out ‘chains’ is of complete benefit to the community. But it could mean that some come in and some stay out. But which ones? That’s where some of the other synonyms come in to play, like… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
15 years 11 months ago

For a local business to be really weird, it would have to meet the following criteria:

1. Would have to know the community in which it operates;
2. Would have to care about its customer;
3. Would have to train its employees;
4. Would have to take responsibility for promoting its business.

In other words, the local business would be weird by doing all the things that the national businesses are supposed to do but don’t do well at all.

If the owners and employees care about their customers, that will be weird enough to insure their prosperity.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 11 months ago
Although there are countless towns in the UK that come under that homogenized heading, with the same old same old retailers lining the streets, there are also many towns that would probably qualify as weird. I think in this case, size matters. If a town has a large enough catchment area, and/or potential passing trade, then the big guys move in. In many cases the small, independent shops close sooner rather than later but in other cases, they survive and thrive. Even many of the shopping centres I’ve visited around the country include a sprinkling of the weirds in with the standards. It is certainly disheartening to see a town centre of beautiful old buildings turn into eye and street level chains but it is reassuring when you turn a corner and bump into a smaller shop that is nowhere else to be found. Just one example – we wanted to buy our daughter a necklace for Christmas and a friend recommended a small jeweller in a nearby town. As we arrived, I told my… Read more »
Franklin Benson
Guest
Franklin Benson
15 years 11 months ago

To me, “weird” means the same as “not easily understood,” which is just how I want it. To dissect weirdness is to make it mundane. Let’s leave this one alone. We’ll just wind up with the same weirdness everywhere, which will be repetitive and boring.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 11 months ago
Ten years with Fleming Foods and a couple more with SuperValu gave me plenty of opportunities to interact with independent store owners. And they were definitely independent, a fact I was reminded of every time I answered my phone. My store owners were also wonderfully weird. Nothing was more entertaining than the weekly ad meetings, during which I was more ringmaster than leader. Once, one of my ad groups in the Philadelphia area became determined to have an Anniversary Sale, but nobody could agree on which anniversary to celebrate. They didn’t want to honor the anniversary of the ad group’s name because they were, well, independent. Yet all of their stores were founded at different times. That’s when we devised the “Gazillionth Anniversary Sale.” No one could define “gazillion,” so we left it to the customers’ imaginations – and we now had an interestingly weird reason to have a big sale. Another advantage of the lack of a definition for gazillion is that we could have a couple of Gazillionth Anniversary Sales per year, which… Read more »
Richard Layman
Guest
15 years 11 months ago

I wrote about this in my blog (http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com) last week, and this is part of what I said–

Although I think that the “Keep Louisville Weird” campaign is impressive, and offers a lot of ideas for promoting local businesses, I think that it would make more sense to put the focus on independent businesses as unique, home-grown, based in the community, providing leadership providing financial support to local organizations, etc., rather than thinking of independent businesses as “weird.”

What we ought to be promoting is quality, independent, destination retail that contributes in a variety of positive ways to livable communities, including building local economies.

What’s weird about that?

I really like the distinction another commentator made about “old” vs. “new” “weird” businesses. That really says it all. For some, business provides them with an incredible opportunity to make money and be creative, while for others it is about lifestyle and being cantankerous. It sure makes it hard to do commercial district revitalization in such an environment…

George Whalin
Guest
George Whalin
15 years 11 months ago
Distinguishing one community and its local businesses from the national chain stores is an important and admirable goal. In the college town of Austin, Texas, there have long been highly successful and quirky independent stores such as Waterloo Records & Video. “Keeping Austin Weird” is a great slogan and an important way for downtown Austin to distinguish the suburbs and its big box stores and giant shopping malls. For other communities that don’t really fit the definition of “weird,” the slogan may not work quite so well. While the growth of national chain stores has been explosive in recent years, there are still some exceptional independent retailers all across the country who have survived and thrived. In many of the communities where these great retailers do business, other independent retailers have often failed to band together and take the steps needed to distinguish their communities and their marketing message from the national chains. It’s exciting that a growing number of communities have embraced the idea that distinguishable stores banding together can have real impact on… Read more »
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