Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Small and Local is not ALWAYS Better

I know that I say you should shop small and shop local, from independent artists as well as your local small businesses – but beware, not all of them have high quality, your safety, your health, or your satisfaction in mind.

When you think of "small business", what do you think of? Do you think of that little candy shop down the street, where the owner is there talking to you about the batches of chocolates she made that morning, or asking you if she can make you something special?  Do you think of the tiny coffee shop on the corner where the owner greets you, thanks you for visiting him and knows exactly what you want before you open your mouth?  Do you think of that consignment shop where you can find anything and everything, and the couple who owns it can sit and talk with you for hours about this item or that, or how they came across this, or who brought that in and what they were like?
Do you think of the grocery store on the main road in your little town where you go if you don't want to trek all the way into any major city? Do you think of the companies that run your home – your power company, water company, phone company, internet service, plumbers, contractors, bank, gas company? What about the "chain" stores that are privately owned and run?

There are thousands of possibilities, and some of them you may not even realize are small businesses!

A long time ago, I remember visiting a Kroger shop.  It was a tiny "convenience" store located in an out of the way place near a tiny Martinsville, NJ strip mall.  It was grungy, the prices were outrageous (In 1995, was milk supposed to be $6.50 a gallon?), and the two people who worked there were rude and seemed to think that it was a huge privilege we were violating when we didn't buy more than milk and the sandwiches that were suggested to us by someone who frequented the place and told us their deli was out of this world.  We were sneered at and looked down upon.  The place "felt" wrong somehow.  I never went back, even though the sandwiches were indeed phenomenal. 
My boyfriend mentioned that his father worked at a Kroger pharmacy early on in our relationship.  ….. Kroger has a pharmacy? What? 
My sister said she gets lost in her local Kroger, mostly because her boyfriend demands Kroger sausages for any recipe she makes that uses sausage. … Lost? What?
I went to a Kroger for the first time in.. uh.. *counts on fingers, moves on to toes* 17 years – with my sister. 
Clean. Huge. MUCH lower prices. The folk at this one were friendlier by far than the people in Martinsville. I was astounded.  Since when did this dinky little no-place turn into THIS? Wow.
Sadly, I will always remember it as a tiny, grungy, over-priced store with rude employees (who were likely owner(s)/family of the owner(s)). That small place made such an impression that I am likely to go anywhere but Kroger, despite what it has become.

Most places that are large now started out small.  It seems some, like Kroger, grew more friendly and more desirable. This is not always the case.  In many cases, the larger a company grows, the more it looks for profit, rather than quality.

Doctors are one of the ones I place in this category.  Long ago, doctors would go out of their way to heal others, and sometimes didn't charge for their services because they were more focused on keeping people healthy, rather than making money.  Now, too many doctors will charge exorbitant prices, and their quality of services is questionable.  There are still a few our there who still go out of their way, but sadly, due to insurance, regulation and greed, many will not. 
My father was a victim of doctors who did not go out of their way – his primary physician neglected his x-rays, and signed off that he had read them and instructed the patient on what to do.  It was only when my father went in for back surgery that his cancer was addressed, many months after that x-ray. 
His cancer specialist went out of his way to find ways to help him, but another doctor, while he was hospitalized due to complications later in treatment told him bluntly that his cancer specialist had lied to him, and that he was full of cancer, that treatment did nothing (which was a blatant lie), and he was going to die.  After hearing that, my father gave up, and passed away only weeks later. 
The original (translated) Hippocratic Oath includes one major statement: "I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone."  This includes the original Latin phrase "Primum non nocere", which translates to "First, do no harm".  By telling my father that his other doctors lied to him and told him he was going to die, this doctor violated that oath, and by neglecting his x-rays, his primary physician also violated the oath.
My father's primary physician was a local, small business doctor in the small town we live near, which we no longer go to.

Another example is small businesses who may have a "monopoly" of sorts in an area – such as power, phone, gas, or internet companies.

We do not have the option of cable or larger companies available in our area for our phone and internet services.  My internet is provided by a small company who had been owned by a woman who my father had met – at that time, quality of service, so my parents had said, was phenomenal.  When the woman passed away, we are not sure who took the phone/internet company over, but their prices went up, and the quality of service went down.  We pay a similar price now for a much smaller, lesser service than for what I paid where I lived in Maryland for Comcast Cable internet.  My internet speed now is not up to FCC regulation (which is 4Mbps download, 1Mbps upload), but we are paying the same price as what Comcast charges for more than twice the service we currently have.  For the same service I had with Comcast, we would have to pay nearly twice what we pay now. 
Technical support has been "iffy" at best, my favorite moment being when I called about the service being out and was asked repeatedly "Are you sure you didn't knock the cord out of the wall when you were vacuuming, honey?", even though I said twice that I set up the network using <blah> interface and <thus and such> router, with <this stuff> settings, and that my computer was communicating just fine with my router, but the router showed "No Signal" from the modem, even when the "Internet Signal" light is lit on the modem. … No. No I did NOT knock the cord out of the wall while I was vacuuming, thank you VERY much, can I please speak to someone who knows how to talk with a network administrator?  Insert a lot of grumbling here.
While the consistency has improved (as I work on this post during a thunderstorm, and I have connection and phone both, yay!), for quite a while I was lucky to have internet OR phone services at all if it rained, looked like rain, was slightly windy, looked like it might be windy, or even with pristine conditions. I spent many nights, or even several days at a time when I first moved here without internet for no good reason, and even now the company doesn't warn of "scheduled maintenance" – which can take down the internet service for hours with no explanation at all.  I have talked to others who have had this happen to them during long-distance business meetings over the internet, wasting valuable time – and sometimes had a very high cost – including losing a client or customer.

A small business typically will have better quality, better service, and a more personable way of dealing with clients and customers.  Independent artists, contractors, or those who are their own company (single-person entities) often will double and triple check their work before calling it done, or ready for sale.  After all, they only get more business by word of mouth, and if the word of mouth is "This person (or their work) is horrible!" it means less business.  That's not to say, as I've mentioned above, that some of them don't get cocky and think you, the customer, are privileged to be in Their Royal Presence just because they ARE as small business or an individual.

We did have someone else taking care of our lawn for some time after my father passed away, since neither Mom nor I could run his lawn mower.  He was tall with ape arms.  We are short with stubby little T-Rex arms. (Okay, so that's overdoing a bit, but still funny to visualize!)  Leaning over to work the controls did nothing good for our backs, even without the medical issues!  Some of the people we had out to do our lawn charged high prices for mowing the lawn, clipping and pruning bushes and trees and whatnot.  We had one small group of four who charged us for the lawn, the pruning/limb cutting, and they only did part of the lawn, didn't do the trees, and wanted cash up front!  We paid them, but they never completed the job, since they already had their money and didn't feel like finishing – taking two days to do the work they DID do.  They did our front lawn, but not the sides and back, and not a single tree was touched.  Needless to say, they lost our business right there, and we did tell others what happened. 
On the other hand, we had a father and son team who quoted a lesser price, did our lawn, the trees, trimmed along flowerbeds and outbuildings, raked up clipped grass and leaves, filled in a hole in our sand driveway while removing the "hump" at the bottom of our driveway (we have a sand/dirt road, and the grater/plow usually leaves us a large hump at the bottom of the driveway), power-washed the stonework of the house, and weeded our flowerbed, all in one day!  We were in shock – and paid them more than asked, and spread the word of how awesome they were.

It can be very tricky, sometimes, to trust a small business or individuals after such things happen.  It can be harder for those (like me), who are just starting and still trying to put the word out that "Hey! I exist!", especially if other individuals or small businesses have made customers not trust someone so small, just starting up, who may not have any kind of review yet.  Most of the hand-crafters I feature are in this category; they have few sales, little feedback, and need someone, somewhere, to give them a shot.

My words of advice are: Try that local/small business/individual artist at least once, even if you've never heard of them before.  Every single one is different in how they handle customers, clients, and the quality of their work or service.  Be the voice that says "This is fantastic!" or "Don't bother with this one!", even if you do only try once.  Sometimes things happen that can cause a first impression to fall flat – perhaps shipping didn't go properly, or communication wasn't impeccable, or something outside the local/small business/individual artist's control caused something to wrong. Weigh these things. Ask questions. A good person/company will say up front "Sorry about <issue>, this happened! How can we make this right?" or "Sorry! This happened, but I've got it under control, and here's an update!" – all dependant on the situation.  I've missed sales on sites before because of internet outages (*cough* See above), and scrambled to contact the buyers and let them know what happened, and to tell them when their item would ship, or if it already shipped.  See how they handle themselves, see how they treat you.

Never, ever, take out an issue with a previous person/business on a new one you're trying.  You might explain you've had trouble with prior similar people/businesses (shipping, if it's the internet, or as in our case with our lawn-care), and you're giving it another shot, but you shouldn't do so right up front – it may alter how they treat you for that valuable first impression!

Always go in fresh, as though it is a completely clean slate.  Forget previous encounters, and see what that new local/small business/individual has to offer.


Until next week's interview!
Thank you, as always, for reading!

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