What Small Businesses can Learn from Chains

This past weekend, my family and I decided to take an impulsive road trip to a town about an hour away, just for a change of scene.  Due to the super-impulsiveness of the whole thing, we knew we were going to need some basics once we got there (various baby supplies, mainly–without going into too much detail, babies need certain supplies…).  Even though we have been to this particular town many times, we’ve never had to go grocery shopping there before.  So in order to get what we needed, we decided to turn to a tried-and-true chain grocery store that we’re very familiar with from back home.  When we pulled into the parking lot, I automatically understood what to do and where to go.  I felt like I was home again, in a sense–home in a faraway place.  This led me to the realization of why people love chains so much, followed by the thought that perhaps small businesses could learn a thing or two from chains.  I will expound on both of those thought processes here.

As I already started to say, I think that the main reason why people love chains is that they understand them.  When you are in an unfamiliar place, it can feel very stressful and downright exhausting to have to figure things out all the time.  Perhaps this is the underlying reason for that feeling of exhaustion that comes at the end of a day in a foreign place.  The whole day, you’ve been having to solve little puzzles, like “where is the cream and sugar kiosk,” “where do I put my cart when I’m done shopping,” “do I take my check up to the register or wait here at the table,” reading menus to try to figure out what you want, etcetera, etcetera.  You might be thinking that none of those things sound like a big deal, and you’re right.  But I’m just saying that after an extended period of time with these little questions in your head, you subconsciously are wishing that you could just walk into one of your usual places, where you know exactly what to do, you know where things are, you know all the little unspoken systems that are in place.

And that’s what chains give us.  A sense of familiarity, a sense of home.  They make sense to us.  We know what to order, how to order it, the decor and layout is usually pretty similar so nothing is confusing or jarring.  Now before you stop reading this blog and call me a liar for always talking about how much I love small businesses when really I’m a chain girl, let me just be perfectly clear: I do love small businesses, and most of the time I would choose a small, local business over a chai.  However, there are times when I am stressed out, in a rush, and I just need a few basic things, like the other day.  And on that day, the chain grocery store was just the ticket.

In my opinion, the two main qualities that chains (at least good ones) have going for them are predictability and consistency.  I think that small businesses could learn a thing or two from chains, which is what I’m going to write about for the rest of the article. First of all, in the predictability category, they could do a little underground research to see what the chains that offer similar products or services are doing.  How are they set up, what are the prices like, what do the customers do there?  If they can try to recreate an experience that feels logical and uncomplicated, then customers won’t feel so out of place when they patronize the business for the first time.

Think about coffee shops for example.  When you go into a coffee shop, you want to be able to understand the menu, know what to order, and know how to doctor up your coffee once you get it (if that part isn’t already done for you, of course).  If you don’t know where to go, what to say, and what to do, then you’re going to feel a little bit of that foreigner anxiety.  When you patronize a small business, you are happiest when you feel that predictability factor.

Now here’s the other thing that chains have going for them (and something that small businesses should really take seriously): consistency.  The really good chains are very consistent in the products and services that they offer you.  You know what you’re going to get when you go there, what it’s going to taste or look like, and how much it’s going to cost, no matter where you are.  And again, that adds to the low-stress aspect of going to a chain rather than hoping for the best, and maybe not being as satisfied, with what you get at a small, local place.  Now maybe the small business that you’re thinking of just has one location.  Consistency is still something that they should strive for, because people like to know what they’re going to get when they come in.  If it’s different every time, depending on who is working or what have you, then they’re going to become frustrated and dissatisfied over time.

So there you have it.  With chains, it’s all about the predictability and the consistency.  Two things that cannot be undervalued, that small businesses should be working to achieve.  Are there things that chains can learn from the small businesses?  Of course.  In fact, that sounds like a good idea for another article, another day.  Stay tuned! 😉