What Chains Can Learn from Small Businesses

As promised, I wanted to follow my previous article with the opposite question: what are some things that chains can learn from small businesses?  We all have our favorite small businesses that we frequent for one reason or another, but I would be willing to bet that almost all of them have certain commonalities, qualities that are harder to come by in the big chain places.  I’ve done some thinking on this topic and have come up with a few key things that I think chains could learn from small businesses.  Here goes.

  • Get Personal.–There’s nothing quite like walking into a business and getting a genuine hello from the people working there, followed by a conversation in which they ask about your life.  Maybe some people don’t like this, but I absolutely love it.  I’m thinking of one of my favorite restaurants around here.  I’ve been going there for so many years that I feel like I know all of the people who work there, including the owner, and I think they feel the same way about me (and even if they don’t, they do a pretty darn good job of acting like it!).  When I walk in there with my family, I almost always get into a friendly conversation, and like I said already–it feels 100% genuine.  These people actually recognize me, are happy to see me, and genuinely care about how I am doing.  Three things that are almost always lacking when I walk into that restaurant’s chain equivalent.   Maybe some chains would have difficulty getting down to this level, but they can at least try to make sure each customer feels as if they are seen and cared about on a personal level.  Little conversations go such a long way, because they make one feel welcome and comfortable spending time in a place.  They break down the barrier between business and customer, and make the whole thing feel less like a transaction and more like an interaction between friends.

 

  • Charm it Up.–So many small businesses have this certain “charm factor” that is hard to put my finger on.  I don’t think it has as much to do with the size of the place itself as it does the way things are labelled and displayed.  The more it feels like real people are behind it, the more charm there is.  For example, isn’t there something charming about handwritten signs in the produce section of a grocery store?  I think it makes the food seem fresher.  Now compare that with mass-produced-looking, typed out signs on everything.  It’s just not as charming, and it takes away from the overall experience.  This principle doesn’t just apply to grocery stores or food-related businesses, however.  It really could be applied to any business.  Add a little bit of personality, a little bit of unique-ness–whether it be through local art, the decor, whatever.  These are some other ways to add charm.  The more it feels like its own unique store, rather than a cookie-cutter replica of every other one in that chain, the better.  Small businesses are unique and charming because they give off the vibe that they cannot be exactly repeated or replicated anywhere else.

 

  • Local Connections–One of the main reasons why I like to try to patronize small businesses is because I know it is helping out my local economy.  It feels good to put your money back into your area whenever possible.  That’s why I think one of the main things that chains should try to do is connect with the local community in any way possible.  Whether that means carrying products that are made locally (and labelling them clearly so people know about it, of course), hanging up the work of local artists, or even something as simple as having a “community board” that has posters of upcoming events in the area, these little things go a long way.  It’s all about showing that the business is invested in the community.

I’m sure there are many more things that chains could learn from small businesses, and vice versa.  But these are the big ones that were at the forefront of my mind.  At the end of the day, I like to think there’s room in the world for both kinds of businesses, and the competition between them can serve to help both become better and better at what they do.