History Repeating: Mom-and-Pops Are Coming Back

There’s a trend going on right now that is very visible on the streets of New York City, and it’s slowly making its way online. It’s a somewhat simple idea: humanize business. I’m not sure if the Occupy movement was the motivation for this, but that’s when I started seeing this idea take hold on the streets of Manhattan.

The trend has manifested itself in a few ways. One of NYC’s major supermarket chains is called D’Agostino. It’s typical grocery stores that looks like every other grocery store, though its newish branding is more Whole Foods-looking now. Lately, however, the stores have started putting chalk signs outside their doors. The chalk signs have daily specials written on them, like a small restaurant would do to announce its daily specials. This little change signifies a huge brand change for a company like that. It’s evidence that a large corporate chain is trying to appear small, human, and not part of the 1 percent. This humanization works, because someone wrote each sign by hand, and it makes consumers think about the supermarket more in terms of its employees than its large corporate size.

I don’t know if it’s related, but a McDonald’s in our neighborhood just changed into a Chipotle as well. Yes, McDonald’s once owned a large chunk of Chipotle, and Chipotle is far from a “small” restaurant at this point. But compared to McDonald’s, it’s much smaller and has a healthier, community-oriented feel to it. It feels like a neighborhood place much more than McDonald’s does.

The same trends are appearing in the online world. One of the retail stores I buy from online (that has always been known for its customer service) is Sweetwater. Its employees are all musicians and know a lot about its gear. The retailer isn’t just product-focused. Employees ask you what kind of projects you’re doing and help you put together gear that works well together to solve your problem. While I haven’t bought from it recently, a rep called me on the phone last week just to check in and see how everything was. It wasn’t an email, but a phone call from the same guy who has been my customer service representative for the last five years. It was actually nice to catch up with him and let him know what I was up to.

As our society is becoming more “99 percent”-focused, we’re looking again for small stores and personalized customer service. While the big chains have perfected the impersonal shopping experience, reducing everything to commodity level, we’re once again yearning for more from our shopping experiences. While the days of the corner drugstore (where the guy at the counter knew you by name) have seemingly been over for a long time, it’s clear that customer service and human interaction will always be central components of our buying process.

I’m leaving the apartment I’ve lived in for the last 12 years, and leaving my neighborhood in NYC. One of my first thoughts was to call the corner pizza shop and tell the guy who answers the phone that I’m leaving. He’s known me by voice for the last 12 years, knows what I want, and where I live. I don’t know his name, nor does he know mine. But I want to make sure I call him and say thank you for all the great years we’ve had together.

Until next time…

Jack

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