I saw this story in Reuter’s News Service last week and its commonalities with Kent’s retail philosophical bent in favor of small, home grown businesses, got my attention. Long before I arrived in Kent, Kent said no thanks to the mall and it’s big box national name brand stores, and that was at a time when malls were the top of the food chain so that couldn’t have been an easy decision — it had to have felt like leaving money on the table of a poker game and walking away. The only way it’s easy is if you’re strong enough in your values that you can say that’s just not who we are. Whether the mall would have been good, bad or indifferent, you have to admire the courage of the community’s convictions to stand up for what they believe in. As you can read in this Reuter’s article it seems that’s a fairly common trait among free thinking university towns. Best of all, the article gives examples in their home town of the Mom’s and Pop’s winning the retail game.
I often find myself engaged in some socratic dialogue about the benefits of choosing to live in Kent. Whether it’s with CEO’s of local companies or a new class of incoming freshman at Kent State the message is the same; Kent has the unique position of being a small town within shouting distance of both the Akron and Cleveland metropolitan region which means you get the best of both worlds. You get small town convenience, charm and pace of life with easy access to the sophistication, chic, and entertainment options found in urban centers.
Let me put it another way, I’m not anti-big box store or national brand names — I do have occasions when I shop in them and I’m glad they’re around — I just don’t want to live next to them. And thanks to the Stow’s and Fairlawns of our world I can enjoy them when I need them and leave them in someone else’s backyard when I don’t. That’s what I mean when I say life in Kent means having the best of both worlds.
I’ve lived in the suburban habitat where big box stores roam free, and honestly, the sea of paved parking lots, neon lights, and traffic congestion can be a bit de-humanizing. There’s no doubt that these suburban styled ecosystems have got spending your money down to a science but that same science leaves the landscape so homogenized and formula driven that both your wallet and your soul feel a little emptier than when you started.
On the flip side, the mom’s and pop’s of Kent’s retail scene are full of variety and variability. What they lack in slick merchandizing they try to make up for in being unique. That’s not an easy line to walk which is why mom’s and pop’s have a higher crash and burn rate than the suburban look a likes. When Kent works, like Rays Place or Einstein’s Attic, it’s one of kind. But we have to have a higher tolerance for failure as it doesn’t take much for one of kind to be the last of it’s kind and go extinct on us leaving us to wonder what went wrong as we stare in the vacant store front.
Don’t let your favorite Kent store find itself on the endgangered species list, SHOP LOCAL, as often as your checkbook permits.
Frappuccinos Work for Mom and Pop
When a Starbucks (SBUX) opened across the street from our offices in downtown Missoula, Mont., a few years ago, a lot of people in this liberal college town were not too pleased. The national behemoth would squeeze the local coffee shops, critics said, and contribute to the homogenization of Missoula.
“In addition to supporting local cultural, social, and athletic events, local shops add a degree of color and flavor to areas that no Starbucks ever can—unless you like the contrived, calculated flavor that every other Starbucks in the country has,” wrote one commenter on NewWest.Net.
“Additionally, profits from local coffee shops tends to stay close to home, allowing for further local investment in the community. Starbucks profits get shipped off in giant suitcases to the company HQ three states away. Further, local shops are also more likely to hire local contractors, keeping even more money close to the source.”
As an independent local businessman whose largest competitor is a multibillion-dollar national chain, I’ve always been more than sympathetic to this argument. As a company, and as individuals, we’re all about supporting locally owned businesses and the eclectic downtown commercial culture that goes with them.
But last week, we learned the Starbucks would be closing—it couldn’t compete with the excellent alternatives. And I don’t see that as a good thing.
For starters, the idea that Starbucks would drive out independents was obviously incorrect. Break Espresso, barely 100 feet down the street, is busier than ever, thanks to a great physical space, good coffee, and free Wi-Fi. Starbucks has always said that its arrival actually increases business for all coffee purveyors in the area—and at the very least it didn’t hurt the neighbors here in Missoula.
Plus Starbucks’ prime space will probably stay empty for a while, given the economy. The employees will lose their jobs, which, while they don’t pay well, come with benefits. And that’s more than you could say about a lot of work in this low-wage town. More people looking for work and more empty storefronts on Higgins Avenue aren’t great for anyone in the community.
It’s usually smart business to support like-minded independent companies. Personally, I hardly ever set foot in the Starbucks, even though I think its coffee is just fine. I much prefer the Trailhead for sporting goods (rather than Sports Authority), Go Fetch for pet supplies (rather than Petsmart (PETM)), Fact & Fiction for books (rather than Barnes & Noble (BKS)), and First Security for banking (rather than Wells Fargo (WFC)). Not coincidentally, these locals all advertise on NewWest.Net.
But the more personal nature of these relationships can also cut the other way. A local electronics chain that we wooed as a client for years recently pulled a small ad campaign because a satirical blog post on NewWest.Net offended the religious sensibilities of the owner. I doubt that Best Buy (BBY) would have acted in that fashion.
Some national chains are starting to make an effort to source products locally, especially food. While it may be true at some level that profits are “exported” to headquarters, good branch managers are often active in their community and support the local businesses. In the case of franchises, they are, in fact, locally owned businesses.
I agree that a town dominated by chains is less interesting and rich than one with a vibrant independent business community. But here, at least, it seems the two can co-exist. And it’s dangerous to assume that what’s bad for the chains is good for the mom-and-pops. In this economy, a store closure is nothing to cheer about.