From Chocolate-Dipping 'Banana Squads' to Workshops for 'Plant Parents,' Here's How Local Shops Are Conquering Big Box and E-Commerce "You can't 'out-tech' big tech, but you sure can 'out-touch' them."
Amazon, Walmart, and other big brands can do a lot of things: They can leverage their size to sell at very low prices. They can offer two-day, one-day, and sometimes even same-day delivery. And their return policies can be very flexible.
So how can a mom-and-pop shop compete with all that? Well…they can't.
But they also shouldn't try to.
In an age of internet shopping and big-box consolidations, Reily says consumers are hungry for bespoke products and genuine connections — and that's not something big retailers do well. "I would actually argue that we're at the beginning of a 'golden age' for small and independent businesses," he says. "Big-box stores have found their niche for consumables and 'disposable' items, but they can't compete when it comes to specialty goods, craftsmanship, or services."
Case in point: Just look at the companies that made Yelp's list of "America's Favorite Mom & Pop Shops". Many of them offer unique, high-quality products or one-of-a-kind services. It's right there in their names: Maui Goat Yoga, Pinballz Arcade, Cheese Importers, The Beer Spa, and ReWax and UnWine (that last one offers boozy candle-pouring parties).
Lea Lana's Bananas is another company like this. "We offer a very unique product," says owner Lea Lana Gutierrez, who operates in Las Vegas. "There is no other business that offers gift boxes of chocolate-dipped frozen banana pops in a half dozen or dozen."
Gutierrez says their biggest competitor is Edible Arrangements, which also offers chocolate-dipped fruit and same-day delivery. But Lea Lana's Bananas wants to stand out with its quality and customer service. "We use a specific banana — no substitutions — and only Ghirardelli chocolate," she says. "We could save a lot of money by switching to cheap chocolate or cheap bananas, but it's something I just won't do."
Gutierrez hires mostly teenagers — including her own three kids — but takes her "banana squad" very seriously. She's looking for happy, positive, hardworking people—which is why she trains them carefully and pays them competitive hourly wages, even during slow seasons, and offers quarterly raises based on performance. "These teens make more money than I do!" she says with a laugh.
Mom-and-pop shops also have an edge when it comes to creating "experiences" — something consumers increasingly want.
"Amazon does not provide an experience; it's simply a transaction," says Marguerite Pressley Davis, founder of Finance Savvy CEO, which helps small business owners improve their financial literacy. "Your job as a small business owner is to think through how you can turn a purchase into an experience. Is it about the packing, the follow-up, the communication, or customer services? All these create an experience that people are willing to pay for."
At Botanical Bar in Indianapolis, Indiana, which sells high-quality houseplants, owner Victoria Beaty thinks about this a lot. She's built a store with a "calming atmosphere, infused with boho-chic and Neo soul vibes," she says, and offers special services like plant repotting. She's also hosted community workshops to help customers become better plant parents, and says, "The response from the community was overwhelming, with people of all ages and backgrounds actively participating."
That's why it works — because at the local level, it's all about community.