Disruptive technology, big box retailers and corporate chains have all changed the way we shop and do business. The big websites and chains might have access to extensive market research and know demographics inside and out, but many longstanding local businesses have stood the test of time by putting their neighborhood before market segments. Despite limited capital, distribution and marketing, several Memphis stand-bys are not only surviving against competitive giants, they are thriving.
On Cooper Avenue sits Black Lodge Video
. It survived a video rental market dominated by Blockbuster, and now, in the face of streaming technology that most analysts thought had rendered the business model obsolete, they are expanding. Calling Black Lodge Video a video rental store may be technically correct, but it’s hardly the whole story.
The place was never about family movie night. Owner Matt Martin said, “We are home to a massive ongoing collection of underground, independent, occult, foreign, world, rare, obscure and local titles. The weirder the better.”
It is the secret of survival for many locals: Black Lodge isn’t competing with Netflix now and wasn’t competing with Blockbuster then – anymore than CBGB’s in New York was competing against TGI Fridays in the 70s. Martin has staked his claim by offering films that large corporate providers would never touch.
Down Cooper Avenue, is Burke’s Books
. From behind the 140-year-old counter from the original store, Cheryl Hodges Messler barely bats an eye when asked how they’ve survived an industrial shift that bankrupted Borders. “It’s called digging in with your fingernails. If you love what you do, it’s okay to starve.”
Cheryl Hodges Messler of Burke's Books
Messler says that for the local shop, positioning is crucial. “With Amazon selling books at, or below, cost…we can’t compete with that.” In the last ten years the store has shifted from selling primarily new books to dealing in used and rare finds. “It’s getting back to our roots, that’s what we were doing 30 years ago."
The Shop Local movement has shown a lot of people the value of neighborhood stores, places with what Messler calls that “personal stamp.” Like Black Lodge, Burke’s has succeeded in finding a niche of customers underserved by the large, mainstream retailers. While bringing your e-reader into Burke’s will get you absolutely nowhere, they aren’t luddites. The store has some 16,000 titles available online through Biblio and Sillz.
Success by delivering that personal stamp can be seen throughout the city, even if it’s isn’t obvious. A can of beans at Memphis based Superlo Foods
isn’t any different from other large chains, but the phenomenal fried chicken they make is anything but standard.
Memphis based Hollywood Feed
has 36 locations in five states throughout the South. Not a small company, it’s tiny next to their closest competitors in the pure pet supply business: PetSmart and PetCo. Owner Shawn McGhee says what sets Hollywood Feed apart is simple: training and the passion.
"We’ve got a couple of hundred employees and well over a thousand pets.” These employees go through at least 40, and sometimes up to 120 hours, of training per year, often by the experts who made the products being sold.
Hollywood Feed owner Shawn McGhee
Despite a wide footprint, Mcghee stresses neighborhood support. “The larger competitors have wonderful rescue efforts – on a national scale. Our stores focus on their neighborhood. The midtown store is a fixture in midtown, that’s the neighborhood where they work.” The same goes for the Poplar location or Germantown, for that matter. This local focus is what led Hollywood to create the "Mississippi Made" line of dog beds
, produced mainly around Tupelo.
That sense of connection to a neighborhood, that personal stamp, is something that people seem more willing to take the effort to find. On a crisp Saturday afternoon at Otherlands coffee shop
, there is a good crowd: some customers tinkering alone on laptops and other tables lively with conversation. Like other local standards, Otherlands isn’t really competing for the same drinkers as the corporate chain a few streets over.
One customer, Marcy – a native Texan – says she’s a regular because, even to a non-Memphian, that neighborhood feel has a draw. “It reminds me of Austin.” She conceded that there were Starbucks in Texas, but “they don’t remind me of Austin.”
Websites and national chains are convenient; customers know exactly what they are getting. That’s good, but therein lies the opportunity for entrepreneurs with a little inside information on their customers. Knowing your market as neighbors rather than a demographic allows local businesses to offer something that simply can’t be spelled out on a spreadsheet. In short, they survive by creating a place customers actually want to stop by.