How are local businesses and communities going to survive if all of our purchasing power is directed at online suppliers? When we buy locally, roughly twice as much money stays in the local economy, because those businesses pay employees, collect sales tax, and hire local professional services. Buying from a local chain or franchise doesn't have quite the same economic impact, but still, more money is circulating in the local economy than if you went online for your purchase.
So how does local enterprises compete? They have to add value. Value comes from relationship, customer service, selection, convenience, affordability, quality, customization or uniqueness, and experience. Increasingly, though, online suppliers offer relationship (remembering past purchases, sharing others' vendor and product ratings, suggesting items based on previous choices). Customer service functions have improved with instant chat, free returns, and reusable packaging. E-tailers often offer a broader selection of products (they NEVER have my size at the shoe store!). And what can be more convenient than order from the comfort of your own home in those fuzzy slippers? Online suppliers are often more affordable, in that it is easier to comparison shop. User ratings give you more confidence about quality, although research shows that varies by type of product being purchased.
I have introduced the concept of Lean Consumption in prior posts: give customers what they want, when and where they want it. Don't create inconvenience (i.e., waste) for customers to make you more efficient internally. It is hard to find a better example of providing a lean consumption customer experience than amazon.com's one-click shopping (with free shipping, if you have amazon Prime). Relationship? Customer service? Selection? Convenience? Affordability? Check, check, check, check and check.
This leaves conscientious consumers like me in a bit of a bind. Frankly, I want to buy locally, and intentionally patronize restaurants that are independently-owned. But shopping is a different story. Case in point: I recently won a gift certificate to a local boutique. It was not one I had been to before, so I was excited to try it out. When I walked in, no one greeted me. As I walked around the shop, noone asked if I was looking for anything in particular. There were three or four people working there, but they were too busy talking with one another. I finally saw something I liked, but there was no price tag. So I interrupted them to inquire. They asked the manager, who spoke to them, not me. There was no sales pitch, or an offer to match an accessory with a blouse. No questions about how I found out about the store, what styles and colors I prefer, no offer of a drink of water. And of course, they didn't have a shirt I liked in my size. I finally ended up using the gift certificate, but I can assure you, I will never step foot in that store again.
Even if you do not run a retail operation, this is still a cautionary tale. Studies show that dissatisfied customers are likely to tell 10 or so people about their bad experience. That is if they even stay to have a bad experience -- many who are dissatisfied walk away.
What should you do? Get feedback from past and existing customers. Not just a "thumbs up or down" on a service request, but person-to-person feedback. Track and analyze complaints. Make it easy to do business with you.
And try to shop local.
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