Retail’s big split looks like this. Things that you don't care about: You are going to delegate the purchasing of that to the electronic devices in your life. Now, what does that leave? The stuff you do care about.
Becky McCray is a rural retail business owner who educates and equips leaders in small towns to creatively revitalize their communities. She writes at SmallBizSurvival.com and SaveYour.Town. We got to chat with Becky about how current trends in retail are creating space for rural businesses to meet customers’ demand for unique, meaningful experiences, along with her perspective on how to establish healthy boundaries for your time as a store owner and where to find the best pie in Sawyer, Kansas. Enjoy!
Becky, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. After discovering you on Twitter, I'm excited to get to know you a little better.
I'm glad to be here and I'm glad that you found what we're putting out there interesting and hope it's helpful for folks.
So you’ve got a few different projects you’re working on right now.
There's the liquor store, the cattle ranch, the small town business stuff, and saveyour.town.
So what does your typical week look like?
I'm not at the front counter of the liquor store usually, although every once in a while, I will be the one there helping folks. In a typical week, there might be something from the cattle ranch that I deal with. I'll be doing work towards a presentation that's coming up. Maybe one day in the week I'll be out for doing a presentation or attending an event that's related to rural [business]. A lot of my online time is in creating the materials that help other small town businesspeople to survive and thrive, give people the practical steps that they can put into action that are going to shape a better future for their town.
Absolutely. I was wondering what's a recent topic that's been bouncing around in your brain lately, that's been coming up a lot?
I just did an article on the future of retail for the National Main Street Center and so I have a lot of future of retail stuff rolling around. Another thing that's rolling around in my head is how we rebuild the bonds of our communities. A lot of communities feel quite fractured right now, and they're looking for ways to try to build better connections. Community happens when people talk to each other.
A lot of communities feel quite fractured right now, and they're looking for ways to try to build better connections. Community happens when people talk to each other.
I was just thinking about, specifically in America, towns used to be centered around a place of government or a house of worship, where maybe that’s not how people choose to connect as much nowadays. They're looking for that meeting ground, and in a lot of places, that ends up being a store where people can have something in common.
Yeah, Mike Knutson with Dakota Resources wrote a lot about the rise of third places in rural communities years ago, the role that those additional places play, and how wise it is to nurture the development of viable third places in your community so that everyone has a chance to build some of those bonds of connection.
What's an event that you've been a part of in the past year that did that well?
There's a big conference called RuralX put on by Dakota Resources. RuralX is highly focused around helping rural people connect with other people that care about their communities, even though they're in different communities. People that are spread all across South Dakota attend, and people from surrounding states as well. They find out they're not the only ones interested in these things.
Thinking of somebody that did a really great job of building connections within a small town — I was in Elkhart, Kansas. I was really impressed with the things that they do in their community at large to try to build connections between people. The amount of activities and events they do that are deliberately designed to bring people together — and I think part of the secret to that is that Elkhart is in a very rural, very sparsely populated portion of Kansas, so there's not a lot of people out there. It becomes essential that you provide people with a connection place. I'm not sure that every small town that's sparsely populated does that, but Elkhart, Kansas does it very well.
I have a rural retail marketing question. In a large urban center where there's a lot of people competing for the same foot traffic, you have to spend advertising money to get folks to come to you instead of going to your competitors, whereas for a rural business owner, you’re probably providing something that maybe can’t be found elsewhere within a 100-mile radius. Is there a big difference there of how small businesses market themselves in rural areas in that way?
Absolutely. It is completely different to try to market a business in a small, rural community than it is in a densely-packed urban area in a number of ways. This is the main reason that 99 percent of what is written for small businesses posted online is of very little use for rural businesses, because it assumes that you're based in this giant metropolitan area and that advice doesn't necessarily hold true for a business that is far more rural.
Even some basic things like SEO are completely different in a small town. In a big city, you need to optimize for search in your city and for what you do. In a small town, there's nobody else that does what you do. So as long as you mention that, you're going to be okay.
The challenge isn't so much about beating your competitors in search, the challenge is having ownership over your local reputation?
That can be part of it, but of course, that's only one of the many challenges in terms of marketing and business in a small town.
Yes. I'm curious about your perspective on the future of retail, since it is rattling around in your head? Specifically independent retail in rural small towns. What opportunities do you see for rural entrepreneurs to use retail as a vehicle for strengthening their economies and battling this “retail apocalypse” myth, on their own terms?
I'm going to split that question and we'll come around to the strengthening of the local economies at the end. The future of retail — I see that retail is undergoing a big split. Retail’s big split looks like this.
Things that you don't care about: You are going to delegate the purchasing of that to the electronic devices in your life. That will happen on automatic reorder, your electronic assistant will take care of it, but you're not going to run to the store to take care of basic, everyday stuff that you don't care about. All of that is going online.
Now, what does that leave? The stuff you do care about. You are still involved and you're going to buy it from a store that makes the purchase an experience, gives it meaning, or makes it enjoyable.
Their three main advantages have been taken away from them. All that's left is the meaning, the enjoyment, the experience, the connection, the fun. Small stores are so much better at that.
Who is in the direct target of that? Big-box retailers, because they have made their entire existence around having the largest selection, the greatest convenience and pricing. All of those three advantages went online.
That is why we see large retailers trying to build small stores that have a better experience. You see them trying to strip down the concept of a store until it's just a showroom. You seem them trying to build a lot of online tools and try to capture automated re-orders. You see them trying everything, because they have to. Their three main advantages have been taken away from them. All that's left is the meaning, the enjoyment, the experience, the connection, the fun. Small stores are so much better at that.
You're right, big-box stores are hustling to recreate that online convenience with their web stores, and the experience is often very bulky and hard to navigate because they’re trying to copy Amazon. Now there's this race between Amazon and Walmart or at least it's portrayed that way, Target just acquired that same-day shipping service...
Right, they're trying to get in on all that automatic stuff, you-don't-care-about purchases, because that's a lot of what we purchase.
But for small stores, for independent stores, the future is not about that convenience. It is about being the great place to go, the place that people enjoy, and having things you can't get anywhere else. If it's locally produced and you're the only outlet for it, then it does not matter what else is going on online.
To bring it all the way around to your question on how this is a vehicle for strengthening the local economy: Consumers show a strong preference for wanting to support something that will support their local economy, and consumers know that that automatic re-ordering from a giant online corporation does not support their local economy.
The other thing to keep in mind is this consumer desire to shop small is not new. From 2012-2017, MasterCard reported that spending at smaller retailers is increasing at a faster pace than spending at large retailers. They attribute this to a general consumer trend to shop small. Big-box is being hurt by the fact that people would rather, given the choice, shop in a small store.
I'm going to pivot us from big-picture retail to what's been going on in your career. What’s a personal highlight from the past year?
I did a three-day set of events, a mini-tour through rural Idaho and Washington. Just three towns: Moscow, Pullman, and Kendrick. Kendrick is 300 people. That was awesome. We walked around downtown and we talked about innovative rural business models and how the shape of business is changing in small towns, talking about how those ideas can be applied. Those conversations were some of the most clarifying for me in that people made up great ways that they could use the ideas that I brought to them. That was my personal highlight for the year.
Wow. You can see that that's a conversation that's going to continue for a long time, long after you're out of the room.
Here’s a question I have fun asking: If you could just teleport to any shop today, where would you go?
Well, one that I thought of is the Family Food Store in Sawyer, Kansas, which is a little-bitty town. There is a wonderful place that is like a miniature grocery store. They have a sandwich counter in the back and home-baked goods. I got dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls when I was there and then there's all kinds of jams and jellies that local people make. They have cheese and butter from the nearby dairy.
That really sounds like it captures the spirit of what we were talking about earlier, that somebody can come to this unique place that captures something about the community that no other grocery store could.
Let me tell you, Sawyer, Kansas is not a big joint. Population 124. Oh my gosh. I just managed to hit it this year and it's a lovely little thing. It was this classic, little bitty entrepreneurial store. When you stop there, just trust me on this, get some pie.
Get the pie, alright. Now I'm hungry.
I'm sorry. No, I'm not really. It was great!
To try to set [your business] up where they can live without you may feel a little bit like a threat to your importance. That's a question people have to ask themselves deep down, whether they're ready to not be that important.
I was really intrigued by a quote from your interview on Factor This with Marco Terry. I think this is a pain point for a lot of our customers and readers, which is that you said you make sure that you're not too important for anyone to live without for three weeks.
I can imagine that establishing those boundaries takes discipline. What’s your advice is for a business owner who is having trouble doing that right now?
Undeniably, it feels important that [your team] can't live without you. To try to set [your business] up where they can live without you may feel a little bit like a threat to your importance. That's a question people have to ask themselves deep down, whether they're ready to not be that important.
One of the things that helped me when I first started was writing a lot of instructions and checklists. We have an entire folder on Dropbox for the liquor store that is the checklist for how to run a shift. That helps to ensure that the customers are served consistently, that everyone knows what's expected, and that people actually don't think they need you for every little thing because they can see laid out what it is they need to know and what they need to do. It's a matter of documenting the processes that need to be documented.
I was speaking to a business owner about being open in the evenings. She said, “I don't want to stay until 7 or 8pm to run evening hours.” Her mother had run that business before her, who taught her, “Don't ask people to do something you don't want to do yourself.” I take issue with that. I don't think that's the best interpretation. I think it's, “Don't ask somebody to do something you wouldn't be willing to do if you had to.” I don't want to be at the liquor store 10am to 9pm six days a week, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't make that available for other people to do that work.
In the case of this retailer, just because she doesn't want to work evenings doesn't mean nobody wants to work evenings. In fact, maybe there's somebody that their family situation is such that working evenings would be better for them. By denying them that, you're saying everybody has to be just like me, which is a mistake and assumption. Not everybody is just like you.
There is a difference between saying, “I can't ask somebody to do it because I don't want to do it myself,” than saying, “Maybe I don't want to do it, it's something I would be willing to do and therefore, absolutely I will ask people to do it, and I'm going to pay them well for it.” I think that we could get into a whole other side issue of whether you're paying people well enough to get good people, but I don't think we want to go there for today.
Some other time.
Some other time we'll talk about the fact that you need to pay well, especially in small towns, in order to keep really good people.
Yes! It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much again for your time.