The Best Independent Retailers: Surviving and Thriving

Discussion
Nov 10, 2009
Al McClain

By Al McClain

At the
recent IIR Fusion Conference, Robert Spector, the author of The
Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy
are Surviving and Thriving
, talked about
what it takes to operate a successful independent store in today’s
environment. In a world dominated by chains, especially low-priced
chains, he identified some key characteristics of independent retailers,
and highlighted some of those that he thinks are uniquely successful.

Key
characteristics of successful independents:

  • Owner/founder needs to think like an independent.
  • Have a singular entrepreneurial vision that is hard
    to replicate.
  • Must be passionate about the business.
  • Must be persistent.
  • Work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed.
  • Must be willing to adapt to change.
  • Connect to the community.

Here are some independents that Mr. Spector particularly likes:

Discussion
Questions: What’s your favorite independent store? What does it
do differently that motivates you to visit it regularly? Is there
a lesson in what makes them special for other independents?

[Author’s
Commentary] Robert Spector painted an upbeat picture for independents
in his talk, contrary to much of what we hear these days. I think part
of that may be that the top-notch independent retailers he profiles in
his book have two really important things in common: 1. Unique product
lines; 2. Great service. It seems to me that the future is limited for
independent stores selling the same assortments as the chains. Even with
great service, it’s hard to imagine building a successful business in
today’s economy if shoppers can go down the street and fill up their
basket 10 to 20 percent cheaper. But, if you are able to specialize in
a unique line or category, like Murray’s Cheese Shop or The Soda Pop
Shop, it should make it a lot easier. And, you still can’t beat the great
service that can be offered by independents.

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17 Comments on "The Best Independent Retailers: Surviving and Thriving"


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Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
11 years 6 months ago
I love independents. There is just so much more they can do to combat slow sales. All the points listed carry a lot of weight for indies and I’m really big on the community involvement. I recently did a series on Merchant Mentality at my blog and I talk a lot about differentiating yourself from your competitors including big-box rivals. From an operations viewpoint, I would add localizing your assortment to cater to the local demographics (indies can do this a lot faster than big boxes). Building a sense of ownership in your store will result in better service, deeper customer connections and ultimately, bigger baskets. There is one indie grocer that stands out in my mind. Sue’s Meats carries only high-end meats and cuts, prepared foods and dry goods you won’t find anywhere else. I asked the owner his secret and he says he spends most of his time shopping the competition to figure out new ways to stray away from the pack. Customers come to Sue’s because they know they will find something… Read more »
Mary Baum
Guest
Mary Baum
11 years 6 months ago

Kaldi’s Coffee in St. Louis is an independent local chain that should probably be national. It’s the only coffee roaster in the country that doesn’t burn the beans, and once you’ve had Kaldi’s, it’s hard to drink Starbucks or any of the other national brands.

The varietals also go above and beyond anything you’ll find at a national chain.

Without question, the business runs on its owners’ passion for the product, but they’ve also built a brand with story–around the very word Kaldi–as well as around the making of the product.

They’ve extended their passion for product into pastries that take the definition of same to another level. And lunch isn’t too shabby either!

Whether the concept can scale is a question of logistics–the beans need to be roasted locally or regionally, which means a national operation is relatively more capital-intensive than other brands. And it would certainly take the right financial partner to make it happen.

In the meantime, we here in St. Louis just smile–coffee drinkers of the US: You have no idea what you’re missing.

Anne Howe
Guest
11 years 6 months ago
An independent merchant that is absolutely thriving even in Michigan’s tough economy is Plum Market. Opened a few years ago by a local family that previously owned Merchant of Vino, Plum is a high-end market offering great food experiences and unique products. They take origin labeling seriously in most categories, making it simple to support Michigan manufacturers and growers, which is an important element for many natives of a state that needs every nickel. They also have fantastic selection of fresh and well prepared take-out foods and the best wine prices in town, as well as a loyalty card program. But the best feature of all is the practice of asking each customer at the checkout line a few questions: “Did you find everything you were looking for?” And “What else can we do for you here at Plum Market?” This enables them to [check] the pulse on how to better serve their customers day in and day out. After a year in one location, they’ve expanded, opening another store that is triple the size… Read more »
Bob Vereen
Guest
Bob Vereen
11 years 6 months ago

While so many independent drug stores, shoe stores, variety stores, etc, have disappeared from America’s Main Streets, some 30,000 independent hardware stores, home centers and lumber/building material dealers have survived.

I have just finished a book about their survival, which will be available from Dog Ear Publishing early next year. “SURVIVING…in spite of everything”. They’ve survived because of their ingenuity, perseverance and the efforts of their wholesale suppliers, who’ve supplied systems, advice and marketing help, along with product.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
11 years 6 months ago
One of the best electronic stores in the country is Abt electronics in Glenview, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Abt knows exactly what it is; a very large, very well inventoried electronics and appliance store that can serve everyone from the value customer on up to the affluent. One of the qualities that differentiates them from other stores is the knowledge of their sales help. Their salespeople do work on commission, so they try very hard to meet your needs, without overselling you. As well, they are willing to negotiate price. You should never pay the sticker price at Abt; they want you to ask for a lower price, and they will give it to you. A throwback to the old days of haggling, and for Chicagoans, it is a reminder of Polk Brothers, another electronics giant that is no longer in business. The blue and white Abt delivery trucks that are seen throughout Chicago’s city and suburbs are a common sight, and when parked in the driveway of a home, serves neighbors notice that… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

Rodman’s in Washington DC is a three store chain that found its niche after the collapse of five-and-dimes. These neighborhood markets, which sell everything from bath mats to drugs to perfumed soap, developed a reputation as a discount gourmet market. This identity perfectly suited the chardonnay and brie crowd here, and sales are brisk. Managers and employees are fixtures of the neighborhood. Rodman’s has proven that indies can rule!

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
11 years 6 months ago
My favorite is Idlewild Farms in Acton, MA. It is a family-run business that started as a small nursery and has grown over the years into a small piece of heaven for anyone who loves to cook and/or eat–green grocer, butcher, cheese, baked goods, dairy, prepared foods, flowers, etc. Several things make Idlewild special. The first is that everything is the “best available.” I happened to know one of the local vegetable distributors. He tells me that while most of the other retailers he deals with ask first for “the best deal,” the Idlewild family’s first question is always “What’s the best you have today?” Secondly, they treat the goods with respect, trimming them to make them as perfect as possible, presenting them in a visually powerful way, and maintaining an impeccably clean and bright sales floor. Finally, the staff at Idlewild is obviously happy to be working there, which makes the customers happy to shop there. Is it more expensive than a full-line grocery store? You bet. Is it a bit of a drive… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

Kowalski’s is a fabulous independent retailer who believes that you need to be outstanding to survive and you need to be great to thrive.

David Livingston
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

There are just too many to name. Plus, I don’t want to give out their secrets to success. There’s the independent grocer that meets and greets every customer. My dry cleaners, where a beautiful Asian woman hugs and kisses me when I bring a shirt in to be laundered. The local diner that keeps the cheap coffee coming and provides free internet. The small local bank that loans me money just for the asking. What they all do is make me feel better about myself just for coming in.

Dave Wendland
Guest
11 years 6 months ago

Independents were the bread-and-butter of our firm’s founding some 30 years ago. Since that time, we have continued to cater to their needs–while introducing ways to work across all retail healthcare channels.

What makes independents special? It’s their passion. And it’s their realization that they have to choose their partners wisely. Certainly their distributor relationship is an important element. Likewise, local community alliances and partnerships can go far. Finally, an outside partner who brings value to their retail merchandising/marketing so that the entrepreneur can focus on store operations and staffing, can make all the difference.

These factors all combine into a ‘one-of-a-kind’ experience. An experience that protects loyalty among its patrons.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
11 years 6 months ago

What makes a successful independent?

Select from our panelists comments, do you notice a common thread?

“Sue’s Meats…goods you won’t find anywhere else…Customers come to Sue’s because they know they will find something different here. Uniqueness and unwavering quality” Doron Levy

“Kaldi’s Coffee…and once you’ve had Kaldi’s, it’s hard to drink Starbucks or any of the other…above and beyond anything you’ll find at a national chain.” Mary Baum

“Abt Electronics…knows exactly what it is…One of the qualities that differentiates them…is the knowledge of their sales help…try very hard to meet your needs, without overselling you.” Joel Warady

It’s what it takes to attract and retain customers; unique product or services, great customer service and a shopping environment that makes one excited to return.

John Roberts
Guest
John Roberts
11 years 6 months ago

Many independent food retailers deliver the goods every day–each with a unique style. A few are shown below; every major market has a few more.

Sickles Market, Little Silver, NJ
Zingermans, Ann Arbor, MI
A Southern Season, NC
Sahadi, NYC
Staub’s Market, MO
Grace’s Market, NYC
Taste Unlimited, VA
The Pasta Shop, CA
West Point Market, OH
DiBruno Bros., PA….

Michael L. Howatt
Guest
Michael L. Howatt
11 years 6 months ago

Casey’s Meat Market in downtown Western Springs. It’s like the kind Ralph used to run on The Brady Bunch. Great selection, friendly service, good prices. I can get a fresh turkey from there as well for Thanksgiving. Haven’t run into Alice yet but I’m sure she shops there and still has an eye for her favorite butcher.

Mark Burr
Guest
11 years 6 months ago
Unbelievably, Dorothy Lane Markets have not been mentioned so far; hmmm…maybe one of the finest in the Midwest. There are two other unique, independent experiences in the Midwest. One is Pinny Food Center in Pinconning, MI. While in a town known for cheese, this unique food retailer (if you can call it that) is a combination of conventional supermarket, general merchandise and hardware. It is family run and an extremely unique blend of a hot water heater on display next to the deli case. Another is Papa Joe’s Gourmet Market and Catering in Rochester Hills, MI, likely the finest upscale food experience in the Midwest, all together. It well tops others nationally such as AJ’s (Basha’s) in the West and D&W Fresh Market also in Michigan. Their gourmet to go meals are beyond incredible. Their service is equal to their incredible blend of the finest available foods and wines anywhere, not to mention their floral market. They have locations in Rochester Hills and Birmingham, MI. Calling them a great place is an inadequate description.
Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
11 years 6 months ago

I would just comment that of the qualities listed above, I would emphasize a singular entrepreneurial vision, great passion and a powerful connection to the community. As was stated above, this translates into unique product offerings, great service and a memorable customer experience.

There’s one other quality that frequently gets overlooked, and that’s a commitment to growth, but not necessarily to multiple locations. Growth and scale, often within a single location, is essential to achieve a critical mass that leads to an overwhelming competitive position within the local market.

Richard Beal
Guest
Richard Beal
11 years 5 months ago

Having owned an Ace Hardware Store for 25+ years with the last 7 or 8 being in the shadow of a Home Depot, I can attest that you must think like an independent and do anything it takes to thrive. During the 25+ years I more than quadrupled my store’s gross sales.

Having said that, Ace Hardware is a co-op owned by 4500 independent owners. Unfortunately, management has become dictatorial, over staffed, bureaucratic and expensive. Management even controls the Board of Director nomination & election process. Today there is a move afoot within the organization to force dealers to become less independent and more corporate-like, “cookie cutter” stores as well as a move to take Ace Hardware public which I believe will be the downfall of Ace Hardware as we know it.

Changing co-ops is possible but a very expensive and time consuming move for a dealer.

Edward Weisberg
Guest
Edward Weisberg
11 years 5 months ago

It’s wonderful to read about the success of these independent retailers, all driven by the passion and the vision of their founders. The challenge for these retailers today is to translate that passion to a web presence. Through the use of social media tools, many are figuring out how to do this. Companies like eRobertparker.com, which focuses on wine, have figured out how to build and engage a community around their knowledge and passion. I recently wrote a blog entry about the challenge, focusing on one of my retail heros, Spags. Unfortunately, Spag did not live long enough to bring his vision, retail passion, and community to the internet. But when companies do this, they enjoy tremendous success and community beyond that can extend virtually around the world.

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