Posts tagged “big box”

Mom and Pop as a target for innovation

Earlier this week I met with some young entrepreneurs who are trying to apply their design school education to solve a social/business/design problem. They are interested in ways to help “mom and pop” (i.e., small, independent) businesses in a specific category remain viable. They’ve done a bit of research and ideation, but were feeling stuck, so they asked me to meet them and critique what they had done so far.

The timing was interesting, because I had just writen about my Mom and Pop failure experience (ironically, thinking about this upcoming meeting the whole time). Their response to my story was to comment on the on-demand nature of our culture that seems to be escalating; that’s fair enough, I was certainly looking for my paint right then; we’ve been trained that it’s indeed possible, and we do want that.

There’s a lot of conventional political perspective on why one should shop locally and small, and they are hoping to get beyond that, to motivate people not for moral reasons but to create real benefit. (Virginia Postrel challenges at least one of the shoulds in her comment here.)

We brainstormed for a couple of hours, building up some possible scenarios, solutions, and I think most importantly for them, the research they should do next if they really want to understand their problem in an actionable fashion.

It’s all about triangulation; trying to get enough different perspectives on the situation, to bring differences out as contrasts, and to do that you need to look at different stuff. They had been mostly talking to the types of proprietors they wanted to help, and they had a really nice segmentation that came out of that. But they hadn’t looked at why customers shopped at those smaller stores. Or why customers didn’t shop at those smaller stores. What do people like about mom-and-pops? What do they like about chains? Both in the category they are looking at, but also other ones?

The second area I recommended they focus on is a deeper understanding of success and failure in other categories of retail. Brainstorm a list of different categories where large retailers have come in, but some small businesses remain. Look at what has made them successful, or what has prevented them from being successful.

In each of those ways of pulling back from the problem, they may see some interesting strategies that can be adapted to their target, as well as develop a more nuanced take on the challenge for their target.

I look forward to seeing where they go with it and I will be sure to publish anything that goes live here.

Also: they told me about a new doc called Independent America where the filmmakers drive across the country talking to people in different small businesses. Sounds interesting.

Mom and Pop in your Neighborhood or Corporate Big Box at the Mall?

Bruce Nussbaum offers some great insight about the problems and history with leadership at Home Depot (I hadn’t heard any of this). It reminded me of last weekend’s interesting shopping experience…

We were planning on painting the ceiling in our family room/kitchen. We had some paint on hand from our last ceiling job. It was Glidden ceiling paint, and we wanted to match it exactly with the same brand. Ceiling paint from different companies won’t match exactly and the job will look terrible if you switch color/finish midway through. We had bought this Glidden stuff a number of times at our local Ace, just down the road from us. Last time, they had a big display for a new variant, ceiling paint that goes on pink and dries white. It’s tough to paint ceiling white over primer, since you can’t really see where you’ve painted very easily. We were too cheap to opt for the fancy stuff, but we liked the Glidden just fine.

Sure, ceiling paint is just a specific color and finish that they’ve repackaged, but it’s much easier to ask for ceiling paint as a product rather than have one mixed up custom. It’s a great idea to package and brand a solution.

We hit the Ace, with our list of stuff. But no ceiling paint. No Glidden. No pink. No Ace brand ceiling paint. We asked and got an inarticulate and unhelpful “We just have regular paint.” Amazed and frustrated, we checked out (another inarticulate employee). We got in the car and drove north to the next paint store we knew about. They weren’t a Glidden dealer, but they had been helpful in the past with paint. No ceiling paint on display, so we asked for help. Apparently “Mark” who dealt with paint was occupied, so our guy went to ask him for us. He came back and told us “All these paints go on the ceiling.” Uhh, yeah, but that’s not the point.

Back in the car to the next hardware store north. Seemed to be an Ace that had been disenfranchised. Rusted tools on the shelves. Ladders covering the paint display. We were told “we don’t carry ceiling paint any more.” Obviously.

At this point, we just drove the remaining few miles to Home Depot. We got a good parking spot (their parking lot being enough to keep me away from the store) and strode purposefully to the paint department. We found, without help, the Glidden ceiling paint. We walked to the self-check, waited 30 seconds, swiped, weighed, paid, and walked out. We were back in the car in 5 minutes. The most successful Home Depot trip ever.

After all this driving around, we were pretty hungry and we went to the Burger King drive-through across the street (sort of a protein-of-last-resort choice). When we came to the window to pay and pick up our food, they noticed our dog in the backseat, and a small flurry of excitement ensued. “Is that a dog back there?” “Look at the lovely doggie!” and “Can we give your dog a treat?” We said sure, and they went and got him a piece of bacon, wrapped in a napkin. (and in case he’s reading this, sorry, dog, but you don’t get people food, so you didn’t even know about this).

The local stores were unable to provide us with the product we needed (including something we had previously purchased from them) and they were unpleasant and frustrating to deal with. The big box corporate experiences were efficient, satisfying, and/or surprisingly pleasant and touching.

I’ve certainly bitched here extensively about bad experiences at Home Depot and their ilk, but in one hour we had a series of disappointing local retail visits, and two very successful (especially so when the previous ones failed so badly) corporate visits. We tried to shop local and support smaller businesses. What will we do next time?

Postscript: Glidden had changed their label since the last purchase, removing any information about the coverage per gallon. Why? And they changed the formula; this new version smells like sour milk and what Marge Simpson calls “heinie.” But the ceiling looks great.


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