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In Walmart’s Shadow: How the Other Half Lives

2 min read

How do modern mom-and-pop shops compete with Wal-Mart? Simple: They don’t. They find a niche, some foothold outside the behemoth’s path.

“In a small town, we’re very limited to where we can go and shop,” said Ruth Mitchell, owner of the Bottle Tree Gallery in Heber Springs. “So if you need something, you pretty much go to Wal-Mart. What I’ve done, and what other stores on Main Street have done, is distinguish ourselves from Wal-Mart.”

Helping with the task are groups like Main Street Arkansas, a government-sponsored organization that restructures, redesigns, organizes and promotes downtowns. Cary Tyson, director of Main Street Arkansas, said it was important for small businesses to examine routine behavior like the setting of business hours.

“Historically, businesses have been comfortable being able to do things like stay open from 9 to 5,” he said. “When we work with small businesses, we tell them these days if they’re open from 9 to 5, they’re catering to the unemployed and retirees.”

Mitchell said she distinguishes her business from Wal-Mart by tapping into the town’s tourist market. In Rogers, Julie and John Colgan own an antique shop called the Rusty Chair. Their market lies distinctly outside of Wal-Mart’s grasp, but they used one of the big box’s techniques to help boost their business: They automated their inventory with a point-of sale-system.

“Most antique stores don’t have a POS system,” Julie Colgan said. “Everything is computerized in our inventory. We have barcodes on all our items.”

The Green Corner Store in downtown Little Rock stocks general merchandise, an area where Wal-Mart typically reigns. But owner Shelley Green markets to a different crowd, one less concerned with the lowest price.

“The focus we have is on our unique customers looking for healthy, safe and environmentally friendly products for themselves, their families, their babies and their pets,” Green said. “They’re more value-driven in the way they make decisions, and they want to support local companies and locally owned business.”

Main Street Arkansas pushes for all downtown businesses to band together and provide novel experiences, something Wal-Mart in its sameness can’t do.

“Shopping is entertainment; it’s going above and beyond just customer service,” Tyson said. “The 20th century economy is an experience economy. An experience can’t be just one business owner. You might get out of your car and go into a restaurant, then our goal is to have you have coffee afterwards next door, then see a show down the street.”

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