Shop at Home for the Holidays – Does it work? Why and Why Not by Jamie Gilcig

800px-Christmas_Tree_Ornament_2006_-_146FCornwall Ontario – I know.  It’s still nearly two weeks from Halloween, but with Christmas and the Holiday season revving up in the background it’s time to talk about a subject that’s very very important to most of our communities.

Shopping locally.  Why?  Why not?  What it really means?  And whether and how to do it?

Pretty big questions that usually lead to a lot of discussion and heated debate all around.

I have a fairly simple personal rule.  If I can buy it closer to where I live I generally will as long as most factors are equal and that it generally is no more than 25% more than I could get it if I ordered online.

Before Internet shopping became the norm people would travel.  Here in Cornwall we are right next to Massena NY which because of some less than friendly policies by their banks have led to much less commerce.  People still go over the border to buy gas at less than 90 cents per litre (Canadian gas too!) and of course cheaper Milk, Cheese, eggs, and certain meats.

A lot of Cornwallites love to shop in Montreal, Ottawa, the big strip mall in Vaudreuil Dorion (although that will change with Smart Centre’s big plans for the property on 7th & Cumberland that will reach Brookdale once they acquire the former Tourism office.

Sometimes people are shamed for not buying local; especially for big ticket items like cars so I thought we’d look at some local shopping issues in this piece.

Define Local?   Is it in the exact city you live in or your region?  Where do you define the lines?   And if we all emphasize shopping in our own city doesn’t that mean that our businesses that thrive on tourists and travellers would suffer?

Big Box vs Family business – to me this is the biggest factor.   A locally owned business run by people whom are our neighbors recycles an awfully lot more money in our community.  For example I am the majority owner of this newspaper.  When I sell ads I pay my rent; pay for my car, food, contracted work and services.    Almost 80% of my actual earnings are spent locally.

A Big Box store like say that monster Wal-Mart does employ people locally; but the vast amount of  profits are fed outside of the country.   In the end does that really help especially if they beat up Family owned businesses?   Same for dining.   Eat at a big chain and yes some jobs are paid for; but eat at a Family owned restaurant and you are supporting a family who in turn are supporting other families in the area.

Which is better; supporting a local business, say like Neo Vintage furniture that imports almost all of its products (India mostly) where they are manufactured at rates that our laws simply will not allow to be matched here, or a Big Box store say selling Amish hand crafted furniture?  Where something is made or grown counts.   Do we really need to support grocers that only carry Chinese Apples instead of local or at least Canadian?

Price vs Value.    Chains have mastered the science of sacrificing value and quality for low sticker price.  It’s easier to sell someone a $10 pair of shoes that will last one year than a $20 pair of shoes that will last three or more.   Consumers fall for this all the time; almost like taking out all those old three year cell phone contracts for phones that would rarely last two.

Service.   We live in an age where it seems people are just not willing to pay for knowledge or service or seem to care.

What is the value of an item?   Can good service save you money in the long run?  Of course.  So why do people not seem to value  it?  When you walk into a local store and someone you may know helps you pick the right item it can save you money, but more importantly it can save you time.

A great example of a  well run locally owned store here in Cornwall is Emard’s Lumber.    The store has now been around an awfully long time and it’s almost a cultural hub.

Yet a business like Wilson Funeral Home will boast in a radio ad about being local when it refuses to advertise or even meet with only locally owned media corporation.   Does that make sense?

So why do so many communities hit the wall when it comes to “Shop at Home” programs?   Why do so many fail?

Well for one many make the consumer feel an obligation when there isn’t one.   Yes, there are strong reasons to shop at home, but that should never be the first one.

Many businesses feel they don’t have to be competitive if they’re local, as if they are entitled and owed business.   They are not.

Many local businesses are lax in marketing relying on word of mouth and tradition.    That’s a death knell.    Ever notice how much money McDonald’s spends advertising that they are giving away free coffee?   Tim Horton’s does.    They know the more people that hear about the more people will come in and try their coffee, and probably buy something else and once you get a customer in the door if they have a pleasant experience then the odds are they’ll remember you and maybe even come back.

Many of the big box stores are starting to be more self serve.  Part of that is because nobody likes to be served by someone that really doesn’t know their product.   That’s counter productive.

Some big box stores actually figure this out.  Our local Staples in Cornwall for example has many older staff who have been there for years and developed some of the same types of relationships with customers that a family owned business may.

So how does a family business compete?

Well in some instances they simply can’t.  For example can a local computer shop offer the same type of return policy that a Wal-Mart or Staples can?  Nope.

The trick for small local businesses is that they have to work harder and care.   Inventory control is critical, but the biggest thing that a small business can offer is the owners and that relationship.   As long as they can stay close to competitive they can keep the business.

They also need to network.  For example a small store might not be able to afford $350 per month for a billboard or a $2,000 campaign here on CFN, but they can team up and share the costs.     A properly run DBIA or Chamber of Commerce in your community can lead to group marketing and advertising pushes.

Find the strengths and accent them.   Put the faces of good local businesses forward at Holiday season.  Focus on your marketing schedules and while a local single shop may not have the buying power of a chain you still have to compete even if it means an occasional loss leader.

Business is always about customers.   And you need more customers rather than less.  Look at – they were selling items below cost to bring in the eyeballs.     Wal-Mart built an industry by bulldozing the competition by underselling them until they went down and then prices went up when there was less competition.   The food business for instance can amortize labor based on the average amount of clients per hour.    One server should be able to handle about 30 clients at a time in a dining room.  If only 10 are averaged the restaurant is paying a 300% premium for that position.   That’s not productive.

In the Art of War it was said that when you are the smaller adversary pick the time and place of battle.   Big chains operate uniformly generally.   That leaves marketing opportunities galore for smaller adversaries.

Make sure your website is state of the art and useful to clients.  Make sure your Social media is humming.   Facebook for Small business is free and critical nowadays.   While it is not a replacement for “Good” marketing; it sure is a great condiment.

Understand your business and why clients should use you instead of others.   I can’t tell you how many business people I’ve met whose eyes glaze over and simply cannot answer that simple question.

While the challenges are growing the rewards are still fulfilling for those of us that run our own small businesses.    People want to shop at home. We just have to help them find us and find our products and services.    You can’t expect anything  or take things for granted.

Thanks to today’s technology advances there are wide new ways to promote and market.

And if you’re still reading and want to know more email and keep reading CFN, your most read newspaper in Cornwall Ontario and the region!

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