Remember the old days when you walked down the main street of town and the shops you went into were all owned by people who lived there? Everybody knew everybody else, their children knew everybody else’s children, if there was a problem, the locals could fix it for you. People provided good products and great service, because they were all neighbors! And a bad reputation would quickly put them out of business.
Actually no, most people today don’t remember those days. We read about them in books, or hear stories of them, a fond remembrance (or a complaint) from our elders who do remember. Larger companies who could sustain the loss undersold them, lobbied for regulations whose costs they could absorb, while the mom and pops couldn’t keep up. The big stores hired an army of employees at low wages who could move more product than the smaller shops could even dream of. The government rewarded the large shops with tax-breaks and other things, but more than anything else, the mass of people chose large shops over small by jumping for lower prices and lower quality goods. And they did so with little regret. More paycheck left in their bank accounts after shopping was enough to sweeten this deal.
Then the internet revolutionized everything, both for good and for ill. It leveled out the playing field, at least for a time. Little mom and pops could now market and sell their products online to a potentially unlimited market, far beyond the borders of their towns and cities. Sadly, as many of us know, it wasn’t to last. Just as the large shops conquered communities, they conquered the web, pre-eminently Amazon, which is a mixed blessing. Just as Wal-mart could force companies to lower prices below what they want or even considered profitable by means of the threat of not carrying their products, Amazon too can lower prices as it wishes. If you don’t like it, what are you going to do? John Q. Public’s bookstore is not going to have a flashy app, or cut their prices 20% to compete because they have bills to pay. Amazon can cut prices and absorb the cost. Amazon wins.
Despite the fact that the place that takes the smallest bite out of one’s check will usually win the customer, consumers still want to feel that mom and pop feeling. They want to have their cake, at a cheap price, and eat it too (albeit only with real butter, cream and sugar). And they want to see the face of the baker and think that their purchase is helping sending his or her kid to college. Many Americans say they would like to shop local and support local businesses, but talk is cheap. You have people like Occupy Wallstreet protestors who bought their sign materials at Wal-mart and skipped the locally owned coffee shop for Starbucks. And this seems to be the way most of America is at this point. They want that good old-fashioned feeling, but they don’t want to pay for it.
Some people DO put their money where their mouth is, and a movement is born. Harold Pollack, a Chicago professor, shops only at small retail stores online, saying: “I don’t feel they [the big box stores] behave in a way that I want to support with my consumer dollars.” (Source) Buy local, shop local movements are beginning to gain momentum, especially in touristy towns where small shops still exist because they are quaint and attract visitors. In this movement, people consciously choose to sacrifice quantity for quality, especially when there is a face attached to the business they are supporting. A big faceless corporation like the run of the mill big box store starts to lose appeal in the long run.
Even people who say they cannot afford to shop at the Mom and Pop shops heartily support them in spirit. They like the “feeling” and the “idea” of them being around. Whether it’s the quaintness of a nice old building, or the personal touch of an etsy online shop, mom and pop says personalized customer service, one-on-one attention to detail, someone that cares about you finding the thing you want and will do what it takes to rummage around the shop to find something that will make you happy. In addition to all that, most consumers DO like knowing their purchase might be paying someone’s school tuition.
Companies that share their story, even put up pictures of their children (the family you are helping to buy groceries for) and show how their shop is a valuable part of society are becoming very popular. People naturally wish to have a personal connection with the place they buy their products from. Social media helps to build and keep this connection established. A simple communication device between the mom and pop shop and the small guy customer. Suddenly, big box stores take note of this, and go… “why can’t we use this tactic to make us look like something special to the small guy?” That mom and pop feeling can be an illusion, and we as a country sometimes fall for it.
An advertising trend over the last five years, big box stores have hired experts to help create an illusion of their being a mom and pop-like establishment. Personal touches like stories of how CEOs started out as small farm boys and worked their way from the bottom up to the top of the ladder really help to build up an image that you would probably have never seen without Facebook. Tweeting about their numerous donations to local charities make it seem like they have the local neighborhood’s well being at heart. Aw. Well, why not shop at Costco then? They have a real man CEO with a real heart, and he even knows about the importance of providing organic eggs to us at an affordable price. We get our organic eggs cheap AND support a real bona-fide farm family, a win-win situation! It’s that olllld mom and pop feeeeeling. It feels good, it feels right. The guys that study consumer buying trends are aware of this, and as long as they can make us feel good in conscience about where we are purchasing, we as a nation will continue to do it.
With social media at your disposal you can create pretty much any image you want to portray. You can’t go wrong with that mom and pop feeling.