Small scale businesses, you can compete with the big chains
Small scale business are often run by one or two people, typically the founders, and they are wearing many hats – too many hats. They’re busy creating, building, cooking, serving, and servicing to really focus on any type of business culture or consumer appeal, and for those who operate a brick and mortar store, they are too busy to notice their curb appeal and front counter appeal. That’s really who we’re focusing on here, but the lessons are applicable to any business.
Company culture isn’t just about having a half-pipe skateboard ramp in the office for creative staff, or a rock climbing wall, or big puffy bean bags to lounge in, no, company culture begins and ends with the treatment of the consumer that engages our products, no matter where. Typical small scale businesses cannot afford the luxuries of a seeded tech start up, or probably many luxuries at all. It’s hard work cooking the burger knowing that six tables need to be cleared during lunch, or that the sales line is ringing off the hook as you work with an existing customer on another line. These are business realities that all small businesses face at one time or another.
Top ways to compete that can be implemented immediately
If you operate a retail front or a restaurant, you’ve probably spent your budget on hiring at least some staff to merchandise the store or bus tables and run a cash register, expecting all the while that you will act as the manager, you will delegate, and you will help operate the business at peak times – this is a mistake.
1) Hire yourself. Even if the manager you hire does not have the qualifications of managing a P&L and balancing the books, look for someone trainable in that arena, but more importantly, hire a manager with an eye for detail, and a vision to present your product in the most appealing way possible, and trust me, your store front is part of the product.
2) Never ever allow yourself to be trapped behind a counter or in an office – you’re a business owner, be inside your business. Work the floor, experience your consumer, and moreover, experience your own product.
3) Stay late or come in early if you’re a business that handles foot traffic, come to work after hours bearing a cup of pure unground coffee beans. Before you unlock that front door, inhale the aroma of the beans (no, not the french vanilla kind, just ordinary coffee beans). Clear your palette of all smells, unlock your front door, and enter. What do you smell? Does it smell like foot traffic? I bet it does. This is an experience we forget way too often, whether we operate an insurance brokerage or a restaurant, and smell is often a killer for even the most specialized niche restaurants and bistros. That greasy smell may be a sign of a great lunch, but early morning and late evenings, it’s a turn off to the palettes of hungry patrons.
4) Always remove merchandisers you cannot merchandise. Empty shelves mean going out of business – get rid of them, move them to the back, or find an clever use for them. Seasonal decor is always a great way to mask low stock, or useless corners of your brick and mortar. Think like the Novogratz – is there a blank wall screaming for something funky and vintage? Keep it clean and beautiful.
5) While your nose is clear, and now full of how your beautiful bistro or vintage clothing store really smells, back up a minute, and look at the entrance to your store. Is the parking lot clear of trash and any debris, do your windows and doors shine, are your lights fully working, and is your storefront in good repair? Are your welcome mats tattered, and are all door fixtures polished? Make repairs and updates right away.
6) Go to your website. Many small scale businesses have invested quite a bit of money in their web presence, many have even brought on high quality designers to make their online presence jaw-dropping, and that is not a bad idea. That said, make sure the ambiance set online matches your presence offline – do customers want to share photos of your merchandising or products on Instagram and Facebook? Is your website 2013-esque, but your storefront or offices reek of 1980, or vice versa? Make sure your online efforts match your offline reality to meet the highest quality standards you can.
Minding the details
No national chain in the world begins a walk-through of their establishment with a managerial chat, no, their eyes and minds are on whether the landscaping at the entrance is impeccable and inviting, on whether or not exterior trash is overflowing, the stripes in the lot are freshly painted, that the sidewalks have been scrubbed and your windows sparkle. They’ve looked at the attire of the staff upon entering, they’ve taken note of missing name tags, piercings that may violate policy, empty shelving, or unfronted, dusty, and neglected product that to you has become part of the scenery.
They’re smelling the store, they’re hearing that the music is too loud or not on at all, they’re looking for the ambiance that as a national chain they have devised for their units – and these are just some of the basics. Additionally, as I mentioned, they’re looking to see if you’re out on the floor experiencing the experience as well. Is your espresso service being served with a demitasse spoon (four for $1 at Sur La Table, by the way), or with a soup spoon, and what is the temperature of the half and half you’re serving? Has it been out all day?
In an office environment, are the pamphlets in your waiting room out of date? Do all of the chairs work properly, without any wobbling? Are there any bent blinds anywhere in your office? Are all desks tidy and orderly, or are they disheveled, telling consumers your company is not detail oriented? At your coffee station in the office, is there more than one kind of sugar, and has anyone checked to see if there are even any cups left for clients? If there is a sofa in the lobby, are all pillows clean and straightened? For customer files, are all papers neatly bound inside of all files, or are they loose? Do you have pens with your company name being used by all employees, or at least generic pens, or are freebies from competitors loose in your ranks and being seen by clients in the hands of your employees?
Now, back to that manager you should hire…
Details, details, details – remember that manager I said to invest in? If you’re wearing a million hats, and want to compete with the established medium or large businesses, then you’d better hire the manager that has the eye for details and the ability to smoothly and swiftly delegate as they take the key position as the server clears those six tables I mentioned. You can’t do it all yourself, so why not hire a few more of yourself, or better yet, a smarter one trained by one of those national chains? If you can’t afford to hire anyone, consider bringing on a business intern from the nearest university’s business school. You need a go-getter.
Some national chains you might want to check out that are consistently on the mark are Anthropologie, Chico’s, Mighty Fine, Williams & Sonoma, Apple, Microsoft Stores, Cole Hahn, Lacoste, Madewell, BJ’s Restaurants, W Hotels, and Aloft Hotels. Just like with your company, service may not always be 100 percent every time, but these brands are good examples of consistent service and experience standards that can be emulated. Every venue can serve as positive and/or negative inspiration for your quest to compete in today’s market.
Last but not least, if you do not have a comment card box near your front door, you are missing an epic opportunity. Always survey your consumer.
You can compete as a small scale business by minding the details.