Leveraging hometown appeal to overcome big box retailers

How small businesses can leverage their size and relationships to market themselves

Ridgefield, Wash., is like many small towns in America. Words like quaint, friendly and historic can all be used to describe the town of just more than 6,500 people.

Lured by the affordable cost of living and small-town charm, more people are moving in each year from nearby Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore. But there is concern that more residents also mean larger retailers that can threaten many local businesses. However, growth doesn’t necessarily mean small, local businesses are doomed. It just means they must change the way they market themselves to better compete.

Ridgefield Hardware is one of those local stores. It isn’t much different from other mom-and-pop shops across Southwest Washington, but their approach to business and marketing can be a case study for how small businesses can win. For years, they’ve outsmarted big-box retail and e-commerce by embracing their size, leaning into relationships and counting on the community.

Highlight atmosphere and experience

People often opt to shop in-store because they prefer the experience over online shopping. In fact, many shoppers favor small, local shops because they find them charming and cute.

Shoppers are also typically willing to pay slightly more for the combination of atmosphere and convenience. In fact, several customers of Ridgefield Hardware felt that the convenience and charm of the store and the customer service provided far outweighed the slightly higher prices according to a recent online survey.

To capitalize on this, local businesses should highlight how their selection can meet residents’ needs while also providing an enjoyable experience.

Master relationship marketing

The customer is king and when it comes to serving customers in a personalized way, small businesses have a leg up. Learn the names of customers. Take an interest in them. Let shoppers know they are dealing with a friend.

For Ridgefield Hardware, this is key. Home improvement projects can be overwhelming, but Ridgefield Hardware’s customers know they can talk to experts who know them, can provide valuable advice for home projects and make sure they get what they need. For example, a customer recently went to the store to buy a kit to hook up a dryer. He only needed the hose but figured he would have to purchase the whole kit. After asking the customer’s needs, owner Scott Hughes cut just the length of hose needed and sold that alone. These invaluable moments provide a level of service large home improvement stores could never meet. This builds relationships, cultivates loyalty and garners positive word of mouth.

Embrace the community

As much as small businesses need the community to support their business, they must also support the community by giving back to local organizations and activities. Not only does this create marketing and sponsorship opportunities, but local shoppers are more likely to be loyal to a store that is considered a positive contributor to the community.

Scott and his wife Cathy, the owners, embrace Ridgefield through active participation in the community, serving on the Port Commission and other local initiatives. Their neighbors know them and know they truly care about the town.

Small businesses should leverage their connections to the community to highlight how they give back and further enhance the lives of everyone in town.

While it’s true that small businesses face steep challenges when competing with box stores and e-commerce, there is also an opportunity to capitalize on their strengths as a small local establishment. Through strategic marketing, these businesses can highlight how they strengthen their community and offer valuable services beyond just the products on the shelf.

Ronald Pimentel is a clinical associate professor of marketing and the faculty director of the Professional Sales Certificate program at Washington State University Vancouver. He teaches courses in sales, marketing and consumer behavior, and works with partners from the local business community to develop and place sales professionals.