Small-Business Is Often Forgotten

I am regularly reading, and having forwarded to me, articles written by large consultancies and media companies that watch technology and consumer trends.  These firms impress with their multiple international offices, their long and impressive client lists, and their claims of representative market share.  Almost universally, the advice being offered today is yoked to an insatiable love affair with mobile technologies and online consumerism.  Thus, the advice given to everyone with something to sell is to embrace this technology and leverage all sales channels into an all-powerful “omni-channel” of retailing.

I am not going to be the small consultant (only one office) to small business that asserts all the bigger fish are wrong.  Quite the contrary — they are probably right about commodity retailing like big ocean fishermen that catch large salt-water fish varieties from heavier sea-going vessels.  However, small businesses (affectionately: mom & pop, brick-and-mortar, locally owned & operated, micro-businesses) are not salt-water species.  These entities are smaller fresh-water fish that are limited to smaller lakes and streams.

Let’s extend the above analogy.  In the same way that salt-water (even a little of it — called “brackish”) kills fresh-water fish, so too does the advice meant for commodity sellers become a danger to their distant cousins in specialty businesses and marketplaces.

Yet, a lot of specialty brand managers and store owners are often and easily exposed to this advice, attempt to adopt or incorporate as much of it as possible, and promote it to each other.  Is it always (or even very often) true that what works for the big guys works equally well for small business owners?  Where the big guys are wrong, but don’t know it, is that  commodity retail and specialty retail do not have overlapping purposes and have nothing to do with each other, even though the core elements of buying and selling goods to consumers look identical.

This is because consumers have very different expectations of commodity merchants vs. specialty merchants, rooted in different expectations of anticipated experiences with the products and services that each one typically offers.  Similarly, commodity merchants and specialty merchants each have different expectations of their respective customers.  All of this is despite the fact that each marketplace takes great, miscalculated pains to imitate each other and often tricks consumers into expecting the same experience from both marketplaces.

This is a big topic — too big to fit into one post.  But I have been exploring these distinctions for years at a level that the big fish never dive down to, and I will reveal ahead for you what I have found in the shaded headwaters of our small lakes and streams.  (Hint: one cannot throw salt into those waters and force the freshwater fish to adapt — they will only die and a vital part of our marketplace ecology along with it.)

Jeff Koenig