The Mom & Pop Store: A Book Review, a Personal Perspective, and 5 Lessons for E-Commerce

I’m just back from a 2 week vacation where finally, for the first time in nearly a year, I had time to read books. While I promised myself ahead of time that those books would not be related to e-commerce or retail, one of them was, and I am thankful that I allowed myself to break the “no working on vacation” rule.

Robert Spector’s book ” The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy Are Surviving and Thriving” is well worth reading by anyone in e-commerce, retail, marketing or customer care. While the book centers on the challenges and triumphs of small local brick and mortar businesses, there are lessons to be gleaned for anyone who interacts with customers in any channel (especially e-commerce, where personal connections with customers are unfortunately rare).

Drawing from his own personal experience working in his family’s “Mom & Pop” meat business, Spector explores the history and perspectives of dozens of small merchants from grocers to jewelers to booksellers to restaurateurs. They range from century old legacy family businesses to 1st generation entrepreneurial ventures.

These business owners are passionate, innovative, resilient, service oriented and deeply involved in their communities. No strangers to change, many of them are operating successful e-commerce stores in addition to their core brick and mortar businesses.

This book resonated for a personal reason. While I was away, I periodically checked the news. The headlines of the recession continued. Last week’s big news was the unemployment rate, now topping 10%. The last time that happened was in the early 1980’s, which coincided with my graduation from college. Broke and discouraged by the lack of “real” jobs for new college graduates, I took a part time retail job in what could easily be described as a “Mom & Pop” store. Without expecting to, I became a merchant. I checked in the new merchandise. I decorated the store windows. I helped customers (many I knew by name) and rang up sales. And most surprisingly, despite the low wage, sore feet and weekend hours, I loved it. That “Mom & Pop” experience was the foundation of my retail (and later e-commerce) career, and it taught me life long lessons about customers, communities and the importance of humility, whether you’re selling in a store or selling online.

As I read Robert Spector’s book, I realized how much these successful Mom & Pop stores have in common with one another, and how much the e-commerce community can learn from the guiding principles of successful Mom & Pops. Here are my 5 favorites:

1) The store is uniquely yours: I’ve written in the past about the importance of a compelling and unique value proposition. Mom & Pops continually face stiff competition from national big box stores and e-commerce giants that under cut them on price and over do them on selection. The smart Mom & Pops have done their homework and found their niche; the thing that they can offer that no one else can. Read the story of a small urban grocer who had the nerve to get rid of Coke and Pepsi in order to carry an exhaustive selection of old fashioned bottled soda pops. He’s no longer slugging it out on price with big grocery chains, he’s the long-tail merchant of soda pop and his customers love it. Read about a tiny ice cream shop in Philly that still sells ice cream from a 5 generations old family recipe that defies the science of frozen desserts and keeps customers coming back for more. And read about the small hardware store in Washington, D.C. that’s just blocks away from a Home Depot and takes care of customers with a well edited assortment and over the top service. Whether it’s a unique product, a unique experience or a level of service that can’t be matched, these retailers (like good e-commerce merchants) have something special that is theirs alone.

2) It’s personal: E-commerce sites take pride in offering algorithmically driven personalized product recommendations. Great, but is there a human touch to the site, to the service? Read about the jeweler who visits a long time customer in the hospital. Her terminal illness has caused her fingers to swell, so he gently cuts the ring off of her finger and has it re-sized so that she can wear it during her final days. Read about the florist who reaches out to customers who have lost a loved one with a bouquet and a hand written note after the funeral and visitations are over. On a brighter note, I recall buying swimwear from Landsend.com last year and receiving a friendly phone call the day after the package arrived to see if I needed to exchange a size. Sure, e-commerce thrives on automation, but a true human touch at the right time is something your customers won’t forget.

3) It’s the community, stupid: In the world of e-commerce, social networking and community are things we treat as somewhat novel and new. Ask any successful Mom & Pop store and they’ll tell you that the community is the essential foundation of their business and always has been. Your reputation is all you’ve got. Of course people talk about you. When people shop, they connect with others, keep on top of community news and gossip and exchange information about who’s got great products, who’s having a sale, who sold them lousy meat last week. Mom & Pops donate to local causes, sponsor Little League teams, hang banners out to congratulate high school graduates, take up collections for a local business or family in need. They do it not as a means of promotion, but as a way of life. They know that the community will be what pulls them through their own tough times. Read Spector’s example of a florist who lost everything in a fire and was back in business within 6 hours, thanks to the outpouring of support from the community (including supplies and resources from competing florists!). Read the example of the grocery owner who was shot in a robbery. The people of the community, including other local businesses, took up collections for the injured man and helped the family get back on their feet.

4) Invent, then re-invent. Staying in business is about change. Read about the ethnic grocer who introduces new items as the neighborhood shifts from European immigrants to Hispanic immigrants. Read about a long standing neighborhood bakery that now focuses on weekend business and smaller cakes and bread loaves for smaller families. Read about an upscale London butcher who now carries premium quality seasonal game since his neighborhood has become increasingly affluent. Your audience might change, their needs and tastes might change, but you can still be meaningful. You have to be.

5) Overcome adversity. Big adversity: Not every business survives recessions, fires, floods, death and destruction, but those that do teach us valuable lessons. Read the chapter about Hurricane Katrina and the passionate bookstore owner who managed to get the store re-opened within 6 weeks after the disaster (it took Barnes & Noble 6 months to re-open). Read about the beloved New Jersey deli that burned to the ground, only to re-open 9 months later to lines of customers wrapped around the block. Many of the businesses in this book have been around for nearly a century and have endured much more than the e-commerce industry’s “bubble” or the current recession. They’ve taken the long view and weathered the inevitable hard times with dignity and perseverance.

Of course, I highly recommend reading “The Mom & Pop Store” in a beach chair with the sun on your back and a drink in your hand. If that’s not in the cards, I still recommend that you read it. Every e-commerce leader has an inner-merchant, and this book should help you get in touch with yours.

For the record, the rest of the books I read on vacation don’t have anything to do with e-commerce or retail. Unless of course you have a lot of nasty office politics to deal with, in which case I recommend Roderick Graham’s “The Life of Mary: Queen of Scots: An Accidental Tragedy”. Nothing quite like imprisonment, poisonings and be-headings to help you keep things in perspective.

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