What can brands of all sizes learn from the evolving narrative of The General Store and the communities in which they thrive? A former Saturday-girl’s personal obsession with small stores and the big lessons they have to share to engage a new era of customer.
I had three Saturday jobs, but the one that taught me genuine life lessons (and planted the seed for retail and customer experience) was a greengrocer with a curious name, Pedigree Corner. During my short four hours each Saturday in the sleepy Lincolnshire market town, I’d hold court with a steady flow of customers. I’d weigh out organic fruit and veg, advise on natural supplements, package grocery hampers, run recycled shopping bags out to customers’ cars left unlocked and generally catch up with everyone who came in looking for a friendly ear. Customers left with a mix of homoeopathic remedies, organic produce and a sense of satisfaction that they’d put the world to rights in a shop that Dickens would be proud of.
This was my training ground for the importance of storytelling and an authentic customer experience, a thriving independent general store in a small town and it’s my sincere hope that more like it are on their way.
‘The Waitrose effect’ used to be a sign of a neighbourhood on the up, that was soon to get a more expensive property market. M&S Simply Food opening in East London’s Dalston is raising eyebrows and setting the tone for its latest gentrification wave. As a reaction to this, residents and visitors alike are craving slower experiences with local businesses and people who care about the local community. Coinciding with banks closing and council-run facilities declining under austerity cutbacks, our local stores are providing communal serendipity and feel-good face time with strangers, helping neighbours build those all-important weak ties that strengthen businesses and communities. Might we be on the edge of ‘The General Store effect’? Can values-driven businesses attract more values-driven businesses, a sustainable flow of year-round customers and optimism in a neighbourhood’s prosperity and investment potential?
Some big brands are appearing in small, local, semi-branded or unbranded formats (like Topman’s General Store) to appeal to new audiences or win back brand-cynical lapsed customers. But, the reality for small, local brands is tough, with no buffer protection or increased awareness from a bigger omnichannel brand. The current UK success rate for small businesses is 41%, meaning that nearly 6 in 10 fails, so it’s never been more important to stand out with a clear ‘why’ that resonates with customers, beyond simply a good-looking shop with ambition.
However, a 2017 report from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) shows that community-owned shops are the most resilient with a 95% success rate. Purpose-lead stores like member-owned-and-run The People’s Supermarket in London and newly opened zero-waste shop Zero Green in Bristol are standing out by standing for something and the neighbourhood are standing with them.
Aesthetically you might see chain stores and local businesses adopting glass-jar storage, enamelware displays, matte-black facades and hand-chalked witty A-boards, but if the Purpose, Personality, People, Process and Products aren’t aligned, customers will soon vote with their feet, right out of that Place. (Read more about our 6 Pillars here).
We, the new era of customers are afforded every convenience with 24/7 access, choice, lowest price, speedy delivery, lifestyle inspiration and automated replenishment – how could a general store ever compete in a fair fight? And yet we are epidemically stressed, addicted to technology, chronically lonely and a nation divided by consumerist pressures on the haves and the have-nots. There is a growing role for the shopkeepers, local community heroes with values and ethics that a fragmented neighbourhood needs. As an antidote to the overwhelming choice and ‘stuffocation’ of online and big-box retailers, we need a relevant format, edit, focus and guidance, someone to fill in the gaps of what’s most needed and missing locally.
The language of new and established brands is in flux, as they hope to inspire and reassure audiences of their authentic purposes and values, but beware the imposters hiding behind empty words without the actions and heritage to back them up. We’re seeing ‘Provisions’, ‘Providers’ and ‘Purveyors’, ‘Established’ or ‘Serving the local community since…’ chalked and hand-painted signs across fascias and windows. Use all of your senses to decipher their story, their truth.
If you walked into the Pedigree Corner of my Saturday job years, bell dinging, customers chatting patiently in-line, organic fruits scenting the air, homeopathic tinctures neatly arranged, sack of muddy new potatoes being rustled and weighed up, you’d know what they stood for and hopefully, you’d want to return for more.
For three decades Manufactum store, in Germany, has focused on household and garden goods that are made using traditional manufacturing methods and materials, it’s also collated more than 2000 items to shop online for customers who share its values. “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper”. Over a century later and writer John Ruskin’s observation could be true of the convenience vs. experience economy in retail.
Meanwhile, in Silverlake, LA, The Goods Mart recently opened an Instagram-friendly general store, “the 24-hour minimart shifts from junk-food destination to wellness haven.” says JWT Intelligence in their coverage of the new convenience trends. It’s a corner store filled with mission-driven upgrades to the typical convenience store staples that looks and feels healthy and it’s offer appeals to a mindful millennial audience. “[It] carries 300 earth-friendly items, including organic slushies in paper cups and sustainable cleaning products. The aim? To shake up the archaic 7-Eleven model with a fresh, socially conscious rethink of the convenience store.”
If you are a small brand looking to grow (without losing your essence), or a big brand looking to reconnect with your customers, come on in, we’re open! Just contact Celine – firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime here’s my subjective list of notable UK general stores:
Illustrations by Michelle Bower