I sit in the small quirky cafe in the center of Cork city, sipping on my americano, nibbling a fresh croissant and soaking up the vibe of this cute premises that’s just bursting with colour and character. As I gaze around at the soft furnishings, the happy dude at the counter preparing cappuccinos and serving up homemade cake, I compare it to the other relatively new cafe I visited last week, with its stark grey walls, chunky wooden tables and equally interesting surroundings (and equally delicious coffee).
Both are great examples of the kind of diverse and creative independent small businesses that exist throughout the world and not just cafes. Think the quirky gift shop full of locally handmade treasures, the one-of-a-kind dresses designed and made by the owner of the snazzy boutique in town, the soft luxurious handmade soaps crafted by the lady up the road. All these kinds of small and original businesses offer so much to our lives, but we can easily forget how valuable they are and how much they need our support.
We all know what it’s like to visit a Starbucks or to shop in Tesco or Primark: we know what to expect in styling and lay-out, what kind of products we can buy and roughly how much they’ll cost. These multi-national chains maintain a strict consistency in their branding, so whether you go to one in America, Europe or Asia, it’s pretty much the same. And sure, it can be a relief to hide away in a familiar Costa Coffee cafe when you’re becoming overwhelmed by the heat and non-stop sensory stimulation in one of India’s big cities (trust me, I’ve been there).
But what happens when we rely too heavily on these multi-national chains for all our purchases? What happens is that the smaller, independent stores get squeezed out, unable to compete with the giants’ bulk buying and massive reductions in price. And once you lose the small start-ups and their passionate entrepreneurs, you’re left with huge corporations based around algorithms, boards and stockholders, with little interest for the individual, whether that be one of the thousands of employees… or you the customer.
You see, small independent companies will always give a special personal touch that no big chain store can offer; when you call into the local bakery or boutique and greet the person inside, it’s very often the owner of this business. Supporting them can give us a sense of our shared responsibility towards our local economy and the people within it and this is vital because once we connect to that, we start to care. And then things will really start to change.
Another bonus of small businesses is that without the layers of management or corporate policies to get through, their owners can be much more flexible with their own rules and offer a highly personalized and more detailed customer service . Why are they so willing to put in that extra time and effort? Because when you run a small-scale business, each and every customer matters! As a result the customer often receives more individual care and attention and has the chance to connect to a fellow human being, as opposed to some brand or faceless company (which in this technological era, is something we may need more than realize).
I still sometimes shop in the big stores. They have a place in our lives, sure we all love a good bargain!
But it’s really important that we start paying more attention to how we spend our money because at the end of the day, we the consumers are the ones with the power! And I’ve discovered that there are so many easy ways to support small independent stores without breaking the bank!
- Is it Mother’s day, or someone’s birthday? You don’t have to go to Hallmark (which isn’t all that cheap anyway). Buy a gorgeous handcrafted one from a farmer’s market or check out Etsy for more handmade goodies.
- You love cardigans? Well how about investing in a really good quality Irish-made one that will last for years (as opposed to the ones made in China that fall apart after a few washes).
- Scented candles? Move over Yankee, there are so many wonderful independent businesses creating beautiful naturally scented candles, you’ve an abundance to choose from.
- Love art? Settle on buying mass-produced generic prints in the big stores? Contact an artist you love and see if they could offer a monthly installment payment plan and you could find yourself owning a stunning original piece of art, something no one else will ever have!
If we want diversity and character, places that inspire creativity and innovation, then we need to look for the people and the businesses taking risks and starting up their own ventures and start supporting them!
Because when you support a small business, you’re not helping some big CEO buy their third holiday home… you’re helping a hard-working person like me or you to live a good life while pursuing a passion. And that’s something I definitely want to support.