Having lived in Italy for more than ten years now, I’ve witnessed the inevitable transformation of retail businesses, often euphemistically referred to as globalization. Small mom-and-pop operations that didn’t stand a chance against the behemoth of large megachains operated by multinational corporations.

Everything from small grocers, fishmongers, to electronics and hardware shops have been decimated by deep-pocketed international chains that offer massive variety, cheaper prices (sometimes at net loss to overwhelm the competition) and other perks like convenient parking. This being Italy, the only exception to that rule are coffee bars and restaurants. Starbucks may be readying for the launch of its  first ever branch in Italy to open in Milan next year, but it’s not a threat any local bars are taking seriously.

That yet another small business in my neighborhood finally bit the dust is now the norm, not the exception. This morning at our local hardware store getting some keys cut, I was struck by a more puzzling question.

Why is it that some small mom-and-pop shops like this one survived the invasion of the megachain?

There and then at the hardware store, I decided to get to the bottom of it while one of the two brothers who operated the store cut my keys on what looked like a medieval torture device. (Seriously, why hasn’t key-cutting technology evolved in like a hundred years? 3D printing anyone?)

I traced back to the history of my patronage of this establishment, which I will refer to as New Shop.

New Shop is about a ten-minute walk from where I live. I only discovered it when the small, family-owned hardware store even closer to us (which I will refer to as Old Shop) shut down a few years ago. That was literally around the corner. I remember feeling a little guilty when I saw the dreaded “Closing” sign on their store window. I felt somehow complicit in that outcome. My trips to the large hardware store chain had contributed to Old Shop’s eventual demise. When enough long-term clients start cheating on a small businesses for enough times, the end is eventually nigh.

Allow me to be candid here. I am a man. A dude. I experience a frenzied rush, bordering on sensual, every time I walk up and down the abundant aisles of tools and building supplies. Armed only with a credit card, an empty shopping cart and the absence of my wife who would otherwise knock some sense into me, alone at the hardware megastore makes me giddy.

Whether it’s the Home Depot in Los Angele or Leroy Merlin in Rome, the endless DIY possibilities invoke a rush of euphoria. The future can only be brighter, safer and more wholesome with a cordless Black & Decker drill. Or Fischer plugs. Lots and lots of Fischer plugs of all sizes. You see, it’s not even about deeper discounts because I habitually end up buying far more things than I ever wanted at the hardware megastore, most of which I never use, thus negating whatever slim savings I could have made compared to just popping in Old Shop.

The business case for a small local establishment to stay afloat is that it must not try compete with larger chains on price, but focus on its comparative advantages, which are typically instant gratification, convenience, and, presumably a warmer, more personable experience. That’s what small indie bookstores across the world keep reminding themselves of everyday when they think of Amazon. But that argument doesn’t always hold true. At least it didn’t quite work out like that as far as me and Old Shop were concerned, because there was another seductive allure to the megastore that ultimately crept in and broke us apart.

Let’s take getting keys cut as an example. It’s a small enough transaction that shouldn’t have warranted me to go all the way to the megastore back when Old Shop was still in business. But something counterintuitive was happening with my interaction with the Old Shop that eventually saw me hardly ever going there. Every time I legitimately had to buy something minor from Old Shop, I started thinking instead of all my other DIY needs which I could combine in one trip to Leroy Merlin instead. And of course the exhilarating, blissful proposition of impulsively buying a whole bunch of things I didn’t need, or didn’t know I needed.

You would think a rational person like me who should have otherwise been pro buying locally as a vote of confidence in the little guy against a faceless corporation, would never set foot in a megastore, but would instead always buy incrementally, and frequently (read: responsibly) at my local store.

But it was only today at New Shop waiting for my keys to be cut that I figured it out. While cutting my keys, the owner asked me how my son was doing. My son had come in with me a few times and exhibited an early appreciation for silicone guns. Meanwhile, the other owner, presumably the older brother, was cheerful, cordial and chatty. And I don’t mean fake, customer-servicey cordial. Then another customer walked in, a burly looking tradesman in dirty work clothes, possibly of Eastern European heritage. He too was greeted with a hug, before he helped himself to whatever building supplies he’d come in for. He was like family to them. No rolling of the eye at his thick accent.

I had stumbled upon New Shop by chance, a few months after Old Shop had closed. I was walking by and only popped in out of curiosity. I ended up buying more Fischer plugs I didn’t need. But from that one chance encounter, I became a regular client and haven’t been back to the megastore since. I know I am probably paying a little bit more, but now I accept that as a reasonable premium. A fair price to pay for instant gratification, convenience, a warmer more personable experience, AND, the feel-good factor of supporting a local business. Even for larger, more expensive purchases, I have at times asked them for discounts that wouldn’t necessarily match the megastore prices, but would get as close as possible without cutting into their bottom line.

My emotional association with New Shop was starkly different from Old Shop, and therein lies the answer. Like New Shop, Old Shop was also owned and run by two brothers, of roughly the same age-group. The only difference really is the one that matters the most. The guys who run New Shop are nice. Genuinely nice. Pleasant people who you could have a beer with in another context. It’s not that the brothers who ran Old Shop were obnoxious. But they were just regular, disinterested, distracted hardware employees. And you know who they reminded me of? The staff who work at the hardware megastore.

Small businesses can’t compete with megastores on price and variety, but they sure as hell can’t afford to compromise on the more personable, human experience part of the equation. When I think of  every single small retail establishment that evaporated in my area over the last ten years mainly because they hemorrhaged clients, the one common feature that binds them is the nature of the people who owned and operated them. People who behaved like staff, rather than owners. People who didn’t go out of their way to make you feel welcome. People who seemed less passionate about Black & Decker cordless drills and Fischer plugs (or groceries, or gadgets, or fish, etc) than I was.

The moral of this story has more to do with life, than a cautionary tale for small businesses, because the same rules at work here apply to everything we do.

Nice guys and girls do really get the last laugh.

Each one of us is in the business of getting someone else to behave in a certain way. Whether it’s to buy a product or a service, accept an idea or entertain an emotion. And if we are not passionate about what we do, what we purvey in life, how do we expect anyone else to be?


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