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Are You Being Served? By Chris Day
It was Adam Smith in 1776, writing in his famous work “Wealth of Nations” who first coined the phrase “A nation of shopkeepers” when referring to the English. He was, of course, a Scot himself so one can only assume he wasn’t being complimentary. Two hundred and thirty-three years later, were he still around and walking down any High Street today, he might have a different point of view.
Over the last few decades we have lost almost all the specialist shops as supermarkets started to encroach on their markets and add their lines to their acres of shelves. I mean, who can remember when they last saw a Haberdashery Shop? What used to be a thriving shop has now been reduced to an end aisle display between the frozen foods and the pet food.
Before the era of the “Convenience Store” there were separate shops for every type of food, including butchers, fish shops, greengrocers, cake shops and dairies. We would think nothing of going from one to the next to collect all our shopping, and then walking back round the corner to our house. Who needed a car when everything was so close? Now they are all departments of our nearest supermarket.
In the changing times that we live in, we no longer rely on the corner shop for our essentials, preferring it seems to drive through heavy traffic for the privilege of then standing in long checkout queues, rather than to get served right away as would have otherwise been the case. Strange old world isn’t it.
If Adam Smith were to walk down any High Street today, with the increasing number of empty retail units there are, would he think we are no longer a nation of shopkeepers or would he spot what is really happening?
Times change, but people don’t. They are still shopping, but in ways that they find more convenient. Despite all the doom and gloom, retail sales are still growing, albeit at a slower rate than before. So where is the nation of shopkeepers now? Well, if a shopkeeper is just an entrepreneur with a dream, then they are alive and well but trading in new ways that suit today’s changing lifestyles. EBay is now yesterday’s corner shop. Darwin was right, it is all about evolution.
But whilst the growth of the supermarkets and big multiples badly hit the speciality shops in the past, the tables are now turning back in their favour as technology adds a new dimension to the equation. Big stores may win hands down on sheer volume and range of stock on their shelves, but you have to travel to look at those shelves. This restricts their customers to those who can easily travel to their location. These days when we need to search for something out of the ordinary, we don’t go out looking in one shop after the other, we simple Google it!
The other area that big chains have always had a problem is with the quality of their staff. A specialist retailer has personal knowledge and experience of their subject to draw on to advise a customer. A large chain can never compete with that. Store staff generally lack the personal knowledge, experience and passion for their subject that the specialist has in abundance. How many times have you despaired at the lack of knowledge and indifference of store staff? That is, if you can find them in the first place! The days of Mr Humphries and Mr Granger standing behind a counter waiting for the opportunity to serve a customer have long gone. Come back Grace Brothers all is forgiven.
As the wheels of retail turn full circle, the era of the independent specialist has returned, this time not behind the counter of a small High Street shop, but online, on their customers’ doorstep or through their letterbox. No longer do you need to have big premises, or indeed any premises, to start and build a successful business. Once again, small is beautiful, and despite whatever you may think in the current economic climate, opportunity abounds.
The big retail chains are a bit like the massive oil tankers you see sailing up the English Channel. Their sheer weight and momentum means that, even if the captain wanted to make a course change or bring the vessel to a stop, it would take many miles after the command was given before it could happen. With a small business, things are very different. You can change direction in a moment and reinvent yourself in an afternoon.
The self-made millionaire Jonathan Jay, founder of SuccessTrack, says that for a business to remain successful it should reinvent itself every six months. A lot can happen in six months and it is easy to miss the big picture. You need to be in tune with your marketplace have the flexibility to make regular in flight course corrections to stay ahead.
So, whilst many big chains are struggling to come to grips with a changing marketplace, if you are in business for yourself you don’t have their problem. You did that yesterday.
Now is probably the best time to reinvent yourself as a specialist business. You may be looking at a franchise, an agency, a distributorship or even just following a long held desire to turn a hobby, or your knowledge and experience into a business.
If you are passionate about it and full of enthusiasm for your idea, that will propel your success forward in a way that leaves the big boys standing. As they say, when you are on fire with enthusiasm, people will travel for miles to watch you burn!
Whatever business opportunity you are looking at, the pendulum is now swinging in your direction. Small is the new big. The age of the niche business is here. Have belief in yourself and your ability. Have total faith in your business, give it your full focus and you will become one of the green shoots of the economy that everyone else is looking for.
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