The Plight of Small Business

When I was little, I remember a flashy new chain photo development shop (yes, I just dated myself in a major way) opened up a little outside of town in Shawsheen Plaza, an eyesore of a small outdoor mall. Shawsheen Plaza was where lots of people did their shopping because it was convenient – a big supermarket, the liquor store, an electronics store, T.J. Maxx and McDonalds were all there…. ahhhh, a 1980’s suburban dream! We definitely shopped there, but my mother was adamant about sticking with our in-town neighborhood rinky-dink photo development shop when the new one came along. She told me we had to support neighborhood businesses, lest they all close up shop due to lack of business, and our cute town go the way of the cliched tumbleweed-ed wild west. (She actually didn’t say that end bit, but whatever she said created that visual in my head.) I’ve never forgotten the conversation, most likely in the early days because I thought she was ridiculous and I really wanted to go use the cool self-service photo development machine in the new store, but later because her words made an impression. And so this particular letter in a shuttered Park Slope small business window really hit home for me.

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Yet the reality is, per my story above, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s not just the web that kills these small businesses. It’s big businesses with money and scale, it’s skyrocketing rents, it’s consumer interest (or lack thereof) in what you’re selling. For instance, a similar letter could have been written in the window of the Asian Organic grocer whose vacated space was eaten up by the tenth nail spa in the neighborhood. Or the wonderful kids’ used clothing and toy store that was replaced with Chipotle. Regardless of the reason, however, it does make me sad. And I can proudly say I’ve stuck with the same hole in the wall nail salon since I moved here – they know my name, and that means something in 2017. I’ve also never gone to Chipotle, not even for the freebie burrito they offered me when they first opened; instead, I continue to patron the small, authentic Papi’s Grill a block and a half away.

I recently saw an ad on the subway for the Love Your Local campaign. It’s funded by the city of New York through NYC Small Business Services to help support small businesses across the five boroughs. So far, over 1600 businesses have been added to the map (I just added Papi’s Grill as Frank loves it so much we sometimes call him Papi), but the reality is there are thousands more businesses out there that could use the recognition. The ultimate “prize” in this campaign is having your business chosen as one to receive grants, though it’s fuzzy how the whole thing works. Regardless, I am encouraged by the effort. Still, consumer behavior is a really hard thing to change. And convincing a landlord to charge a lower rent than they can get isn’t realistic. And stopping big chain businesses from overtaking neighborhoods is a bureaucratic mess in which very few people have a desire to take an active interest (myself included). And so, the plight of small business continues….

Perhaps American Express could make every Saturday, Small Business Saturday? Or maybe small businesses could unite somehow (ironically, a web development company like a WordPress.com could be the connective glue and inspiration for all small businesses who have sites on their platform) and do a “Small Business takes back Christmas” (it even rhymes!) Would the Ad Council be willing to do a PSA for this? ‘Trip before you Click,’ encouraging you to take a trip down to the local sports store to buy your kid his mouthguard rather than doing one-day Prime on Amazon.

I love my neighborhood. Gear To Go’s letter made me sad and guilty, as intended. (One point he’s sure to recognize, however, is that while the web has contributed to the store’s failure, it is also what’s going to save the other, arguably more unique side of his business. So he’s claiming the web an enemy when it’s actually vital to his growth and survival, despite it forcing him to rethink his long-term vision.) Regardless, the letter, the empty storefront on 7th Ave., and eventually the chain, real estate office or hairdresser that takes its place will continue to make me think twice. I hope it does you, too.

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