The Home Turf Advantage

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Okay. Mea culpa. I spend waaaaaaaaaaaay too much time singing the praises of big brands like Starbucks, Apple, Target, BMW, etc., perhaps at the expense of smaller, local shops that also deserve to be recognized. I know.

It isn't so much that I prefer big brands over small ones. It's just that they're easy for everyone who reads this blog to relate to.

(Thanks for calling me on it, Ardath.)


The truth is that local businesses have some advantages over their big city cousins: They're closer to their customers. They're more nimble. They don't have to appeal to a whole lot of people. They don't have to make a lot of people rich. Everything is scaled-down... except the customer experience. Make that experience unique and you'll have something special.

Here's a quick example: Sheri's Cafe Del Giorno doesn't have the advertising budget of a Starbucks or a Coffee Bean & tea Company, but Sheri makes the best coffee in all of South Carolina (and that's saying something). Most of her business comes from word-of-mouth. My wife will make me drive ten miles out of the way to go get coffee there.

Brand loyalty? Not a chance. Comfort (see previous post)? Not really. That certain something special? You bet.

As much as I like Starbucks (and I do), if their stuff were as good as Sheri's, they wouldn't have to build a store every quarter mile. We'd all be driving out of our way to buy coffee there.

Think about it.

The thing about Sheri's Cafe Del Giorno is that it is absolutely unique. Just like the Bistrot De L'etang's steak au poivre is the most scrumptious peppercorn steak you'll ever eat anywhere on the planet, Sheri's coffee is the closest thing to absolute java perfection you're likely to find anywhere.

If Sheri decided to open thirty stores up and down the East coast, that certain something special would evaporate. Maybe not right away, but at some point, it would.

There's just something that happens when people who are great at what they do - and passionate about it - manage to keep their endeavors on the smallish side. They put so much of themselves into every product and every customer experience that you can't help but end up with something unique.

Maybe there's also something special about doing business with someone who a) truly values you as a customer and b) is waist deep in crucial details every day.

When I was a kid, growing up in Paris (France, not Texas), I never saw the inside of a supermarket. There was a butcher down the street, and a boulangerie-patisserie, and an epicier (a small grocery store). We walked to the stores and bought stuff there, and everyone knew your names. The cuts of meat were carved just for you. Scales and wax paper and proud smiles were part of the experience. Wood shavings on the floor. Rows of cheeses lined up like museum pieces behind glass partitions.

We had conversations with these shop owners. They asked us how we liked that last pie we bought from them. That steak. That bottle of wine. If we weren't 100% happy, they threw in something extra with that day's purchase to make up for it.

It wasn't just good business. They actually cared. It was a matter of personal satisfaction... and pride.

And there you have it: Very few big businesses are designed to take care of you the same way a small business can. A small shop. A privately owned boutique.

No matter how great your customer service is, you can't beat the experience of dealing directly with a business owner. You just can't.

That's why smart large companies are working hard to try to tap into the small business vibe. (Think big, act small.) It's going to be a tough challenge, even for the best of them... But it's worth the effort. Trust me on this.

In the meantime, just for Ardath, below is my personal list of local favorites. (The microbreweries are too numerous to list, so I'll leave them out this time.)

Sheri's (The best coffee in Greenville. Period.)
Carolina Triathlon (A friendly bike shop staff that takes great care of every customer: What a concept!)
Orange Coat (Absolutely the coolest web design firm I've ever run into... And it isn't in New York or San Francisco. It's in Greenville.) Check out the site they put together for Deb Sofield.
O-Cha (Two words: Bubble Tea. One more: Addiction.)
Lemongrass (You can't go wrong with Thai food, but these guys take it to a whole new level.)
Frank Roth (The best massage therapist in the history of Western civilization- So cool, he doesn't even need a website.)
Venti (impossibly hip home interiors that make design geeks like me drool all over ourselves.)
Postcard From Paris (Genuine French provincial furniture for every southern suburban castle.)
Hincapie Sportswear (Okay, these guys are getting BIG, but they started small, cultivated a rabid local fan base, and keep their ties to the community pretty tight.)

I could go on and on and on, but you get the drift. Local shops can be a lot more relevant and precious to our lifestyles, our communities and our cultural identity. No... Let me rephrase that. Change precious to vital.

Imagine living in a place where every store, every business, every restaurant is a chain. A Franchise. A satellite office. Scary? Yeah. Scary.

Big isn't necessarily better. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being small, or wanting to stay small. On the contrary. It's a way for companies to ensure that they'll never have to compromise. It's a way to make sure they'll always stay close to their customers. That details won't be missed. That the superquality that made them so successful in the beginning won't ever get watered-down or pushed aside.

It might still be too soon to say it, but in a year or two, a whole lot of global microbrands / global microventures will be giving the big brands a run for their money on a much broader scale. (This will have to be the topic of another post.)

Is small the new big? Not quite yet... but it looks like we're headed that way.

Related Article: Big vs. Small - Part 1
And another one from influx insights.

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