Independents: The Unsung Heroes of the American Economy

Independents: The Unsung Heroes of the American Economy


In his new book, “The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving,” Robert Spector identified some key characteristics of independent retailers and highlighted some of those stores he thinks are uniquely successful.

On his Web site, Spector writes, “Mom & pop stores have always brought people together, fostering a sense of neighborhood identity and camaraderie, and are the glue that connects people in big cities and small towns alike… I am fascinated by the direct connection people feel as merchants and customers when they do business in neighborhood shops.”  With the backdrop of the growing “buy local” movement and his own experiences in his parents' butcher shop, Spector traveled the country in search of that secret sauce that enables locally owned businesses to thrive in the face of growing competition from large chain stores.

Let's see how Spector's key characteristics manifest themselves in our industry.

* Owner/founder needs to think like an independent. Sure, all businesses need processes and procedures, but without having to report to Wall Street or to a board of directors, you can unleash your creative energies.  You can change your merchandising mix, add categories and put your own team in place. Use your independence to test new ideas and challenge your own status quo.

* Have a singular entrepreneurial vision that is hard to replicate. Vision is the most important driver in building a successful business.  Whether you see yourself as providing unparalleled service or as being a one-stop shop for designers and architects, the more clearly defined your direction, the easier it will be to execute.  Unlike big box stores who try to be everything to everyone, carefully craft your merchandising, service level and message to a select group of buyers.

* Must be passionate about the business. Many in our business came in as enthusiasts.  Audiophiles turned their love of music into an audio store that morphed into an AV specialty business.  Others moved from repairing home appliances to selling them.  Passion is contagious; it spreads from owners to staff members to customers. 

* Must be persistent.   When my clients start feeling overwhelmed about a bigger competitor moving into their area, I often urge them to make a list of the big guys who have come and gone in their markets.  Last year, Circuit City and Tweeter folded, but through the years, we've seen the demise of Highland, Fretter, Crazy Eddie, Tops, and many more. They may have outgunned you, but in the end, your persistence, your sheer grit, left you standing.

* Work hard and do whatever it takes to succeed.  As a small business owner, you epitomize the American Dream.  With everything you own on the line, you have no choice but to do whatever you have to do to build your business.

* Must be willing to adapt to change. Before he retired, my dad and I made a list of products that he'd brought into our family's business.  That list included used cars, motor scooters, organs, 4-track and 8-track car stereo, the first projection TVs, Beta VCR, computers, 10' satellite dishes, and a whole host of others.  Independents are a nimble bunch.

* Connect to the community.  Like politics, business really is local.  You can reach your prospects through your website using services like Reach Local and AV Net Solutions to optimize your site and target customers in your area.  Debbie Schaefer of Mrs. G's in Lawrenceville, N.J., uses Twitter and Facebook to link her followers to her site.  She recently invited twelve local bloggers to a brunch in her store to help familiarize them with her wide array of appliance and home theater offerings. Participate in the local chamber, build relationships through business networking groups, and open your store for charity fundraisers. 

Small businesses account for more than 95percent of all business licenses in the U. S.  More than half of all Americans work for companies with less than 50 employees.  The SBA reports that in the past twenty years, small entrepreneurial companies created three out of four new jobs.

Business isn't as robust as it once was, but the “buy local” movement is gaining legs.  Show your community that you fuel the local economy, that the profits you generate stay in their town, and that their friends and neighbors work for you. 

Act like an entrepreneur, share your vision, be passionate about your business, work hard, be persistent, be willing to change and connect with your community.  Sounds like a formula for continued growth and success.