// The TAG! Blog

Up close and personal

Samuel Thompson - Thursday, March 22, 2012

—( ‘Polaroid de locura ordinaria 3’, with thanks to sicoactiva )— Thanks to the power of the Internet I can now do all of my shopping dressed in a Onesie while chain drinking tea. While my refusal to do so is largely a matter of personal pride, I’m also greatly enamoured of a few small-business-specific characteristics which keep me shopping local week in, week out.

A dash of different

“Why are we doing TAG!?” A question I’ve had thrown my way in a variety of different tones. As an organisation many of our long term aims are economic in nature: keeping money local by spending it locally leads to richer communities, which leads to higher prosperity and happier people.

As important and groovy as that is, it’s not really the kind of message you can get passionate about. (“Yay! Economic trends!” doesn’t seem to have become the rallying call we thought it might). For Carol and I – and all of the keen TAGgists and TAGstifers (definitely real words) we’ve come across – it’s the personal nature of independents that drives us. 

The Indie Factor

I’ve always preferred shopping with small independent businesses (although I never really saw it as a conscious choice). Value and choice are good enough reasons on their own, but without a doubt the biggest draw is personality. I invariably end up cheerier after a shopping trip, having joked about with staff and exchanged warm pleasantries as a matter of course. I also tend to learn something new along the way, a side effect of chatting to people who know what they’re talking about and love what they do.

This kind of thing just isn’t possible online, however well crafted the user interface and however much time and energy has been devoted to the copy. Nor does it seem to be common with big businesses; the personal touch is so often sacrificed at the alter of efficiency and corporate culture.

More than monetary

Many indie naysayers will point to the scale disadvantage small businesses face when arguing their inevitable disappearance. Since they’re tethered to brick-and-mortar stores and unable to buy in the kind of bulk big chains can manage they are unable to offer rock bottom prices on all things, therefore – supposedly – they can’t compete long-term.

But most consumers aren’t looking for the cheapest offer, they’re looking for value. There are exceptions of course – we’ll likely buy kitchen towels or a new phone charger wherever it’s cheapest and easiest – but for most purchases we’ll go somewhere we can trust, which offers great service and a genuinely friendly atmosphere.

Nobody falls in love with the cheapest outlet, or waxes lyrical about how uniquely awesome a Poundshop is: if it’s low prices that attract someone then lower prices will lead them away.

The point is, price doesn’t enchant, and value isn’t just a question of cost. Real value stems from uniqueness, a personal touch and a business going the extra mile to bring a smile to the customer’s face: all values that are remarkably hard to achieve unless there’s a lovely person involved.

‘Like us, we’re personal too!’

People spend more with – and return more often to – businesses they like, and in most cases the businesses that we like are those with which we have a personal relationship. That’s the real trump card for independents, because staff and owners can and do go out of their way to create real personal relationships with their customers.

A depressing trend that seems to have become very popular recently is big businesses trying to harness this personable power – and thereby win the loyalty of their customers – through highly superficial means.

Many banks, for instance, have taken an Orwellian path, screaming from the rooftops how much they love and respect their individual customers and just want to make them happy. Starbucks have endeavoured to really push the envelope – and I’m not sure yet how I feel about this, beyond somewhat cynically creeped out – with their latest campaign which involves personalising your cup. Perhaps it’s good that they’re trying, but institutionalizing the personal touch strikes me as somewhat oxymoronic.

The secret sauce

Independents don’t need to pay and order their staff to be personable because they’re not saddled with a global brand which requires staff to be anything other than themselves. I’m a person before I’m a customer, and I much prefer it when a staff member is a person first too.

Online I can get ease of purchase and relative cheapness: simplicity is wonderful, but it rarely makes your day. For that you need a real person going out of their way to make your experience the best it can be, face-to-face.

Frankness, honesty and affability can’t be forced, and these qualities quite understandably abound in small businesses. So while there are many valid reasons for me to shop online or in some megapolis of a store, I can always find plenty more human reasons to go local.

Any good stories of grin-inducing personal touches out there?

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