5 Tips on Surviving as a Mom-and-Pop

It’s a struggle for mom-and-pops in today’s economy, just as it is for larger retailers. But many argue it’s a bigger battle facing today's independent entrepreneur.

Small businesses have to think twice about ordering an extra shipment of a product if they are not sure they can sell it, and they often have to cut back on more-and-more costs. But they also have the advantage of not having to go through 100 layers of red tape and management levels to make change. Therefore, many are adapting, and even thriving, but experts say more should be done – either through tax incentives or less burdensome business regulations on the federal, state or local levels – to encourage more mom-and-pops to set up shop.

“These kinds of stores are easy prey for local taxing authority as well as the state, and the federal government. It’s like being a bottom feeder – you can fine people for not sweeping their sidewalk at a particular time,” said Robert Spector, a Seattle-based retail writer and author of “The Mom & Pop Store: How the Unsung Heroes of the American Economy are Surviving and Thriving.”

To help prove his point, Spector cited a bakery in Milwaukee that listed scones on the board outside in a way that was too wordy for the local historical society.

Then there’s the big-chain-per-square-footage issues. Thomas Robinson, business development representative for Russo’s Books in Bakersfield, Calif., said he thinks there should be regulations on how many Wal-Marts, for example, could set up shop in a given geographic area. Plus, he said, the federal government could do more, such as allowing small businesses to accelerate the depreciation on machinery, to benefit these entrepreneurs.

“That’s where the economic recovery is going to be coming from. It’s not coming from the large retailer laying off workers in stores,” Spector said. “There’s a lot to do … the government needs to value capitalism and entrepreneurs.”

Here are 5 tips for how mom-and-pops can survive amid the big box in today’s economic climate:

No. 1. Get involved: The consensus is, the more involved in the community a mom-and-pop is, the more name recognition that store has, and the more familiar the customer base will be with your product. Customers also like to know part of their money is being given back to the community somehow, either through sponsoring local teams, events, charities, or other means.

No. 2. Know your stuff: One big reason customers choose mom-and-pops over bigger names is they hope to get better, more-specialized service regarding the products they are seeking. Do not disappoint them! Give them a reason to come back, even if your products may be slightly more expensive.

No. 3. Adapt: Despite the horror that may come from employing some big-box tactics, some may work quite nicely for small businesses. Robinson, for example, said he has brought some corporate-like ideas from B&N to Russo’s and many are working.

No. 4. Understand your strengths and leverage them: Small businesses have the advantage of being able to adapt quickly to the local market and changes in consumer preferences. Use that to your advantage, and make sure your customer base knows you are more in tune with their needs than the conglomerates may be, and can give them more personalized attention to boot.

No. 5. Be visible: Besides being out and about in the community, customers want to see the small business owner in the store, making personal connections.

“The customers want to see the owner there – they want to see the owner working and say ‘Hello’…beyond just the exchange for money and goods and services,” Spector said. “The possibilities are limitless but you need to really establish that connection and people will be more loyal to you.”