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Chicago’s #1 Station: WII-FM

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According to a recent American Express OPEN study, our great city of Chicago ranks near the bottom of 15 major US cities in terms of “the economic vitality of locally owned retail businesses.”

This is both a problem, and an opportunity.

Problem: As everyone intuitively knows, and the above-referenced article confirms, small businesses are the lifeblood of communities. Overall higher real estate values are associated with areas where there are thriving independent, small businesses. Chicago’s under-performing locally-owned retail businesses are helping to prolong our city’s economic doldrums.

Opportunity: If our locally-owned retail businesses can break out of their funk, they will start leading the way towards a brighter future for our entire city.

So, the question is…

How can Chicago’s locally-owned retail businesses start to thrive?

As quoted in the above-cited article, Susan Sobbett, president of American Express OPEN, believes that the responsibility lies with the consumers – that they should simply decide, out of the goodness of their hearts, to support locally-owned retail establishments instead of national chains. As she puts it:

“If consumers commit to ‘Shopping Small’, we can provide Main Street with an important boost at a time when they need it most.”

Really?

That’s your solution?

In my opinion, such a simple, naïve belief is reminiscent of the failed “Just Say No” anti-drug use campaign of a generation ago, or the standard, pie-in-the-sky chain email suggestions that “If we all just refuse to buy gas/use ATM’s/vote for any incumbent politician/etc.” that will bring about some kind of massive societal change.

In reality, the responsibility lies firmly with the business owner and not the consumer.

It is the owner of the local retail store who must give a compelling reason for consumers to patronize his establishment instead of one of the big chains, and not just ask for some benevolent handout from consumers who will somehow willingly hand over their money in exchange for inferior value.

Yes, some people may – for a short time – decide to accept inferior value in return for a warm and fuzzy feeling that they are “supporting their local economy.” But is that really how we think we can spur an economic recovery: By suggesting that consumers accept less value and local business owners lazily continue to provide it, choosing to place their fate in the hands of charitable shoppers instead of actually working to provide a superior product or service and earning people’s business and loyalty?

Even if such a strategy could work, it would likely be a very short-term solution at best. In my experience, people enjoy making charitable donations when we choose to do so – but we also like to be smart consumers when we choose to shop.

In order to attract the shopping dollars of our fellow no-nonsense Chicagoans, local retail store owners – and, in fact, all small business owners – need to do our very best to provide as much value as possible and to differentiate ourselves among our many competitors.

Smart marketers know this as creating a Unique Selling Proposition – carving out a place of one’s own in a crowded market, providing a reason for existence instead of being “just another ______________” and expecting people to buy from us despite such laziness.

Years ago, when the economy was booming, more and more “me, too” businesses sprung up like weeds all across our city (and the entire country, for that matter) – and many small business owners found themselves thriving without having to do very much smart marketing at all – and without providing any unique value to an ever-expanding, free-spending, very forgiving marketplace.

But those days have passed, likely never to return.

Today’s consumer is much more demanding and far more careful where she spends her ever-shrinking disposable dollars. As small business owners, we need to keep in mind at all times that by far the #1 thing on every consumer’s mind – especially in today’s challenging economy – is their favorite radio station: “WII-FM” (“What’s In It For me?”).

There are many, many ways for local business owners to earn consumers’ hard-earned dollars. In fact, this very same American Express OPEN study showed that Chicago’s locally-owned bars and restaurants are near the very top of the list of such small businesses anywhere in the country!

So the most-powerful question a local retail store owner can ask is:

“What are Chicago’s bars and restaurants doing right that I can use to attract more and better customers to my Chicago retail establishment?”

Making a serious effort to come up with answers to this question, and starting from the point of “What does the consumer really want that I can provide better than a national chain store?” will be key to the retail store’s success, and along with it our city’s economic recovery.

And who knows? Chicago may leap from below-average to the top of the list in the next American Express OPEN study of small business health, carrying with it a boost in overall health for our great city as a whole.

Now isn’t THAT worth working hard for, instead of just hoping for charity and shifting the responsibility for our business’s success to someone else?

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