Independent retail – three myths – busted

It’s not something I tend to mention on the blog, but one of the things that keeps me busy outside of my kids,  my day job and LearnerMother is Rules of Play, the games shop that I co own with my husband and a friend.

As an independent retailer, we spend a fair amount of our time challenging myths and assumptions, and after yet another conversation earlier in the week about ‘the high street being irrelevant’ I’ve been having a bit of an internal rant, to tell you the truth. And what better thing to do with an internal rant than to blog it out! Stand by for Independent Retail – three myths – BUSTED!

Independent shops are ALWAYS more expensive than chain stores/online.

Errr, nope.  I can tell you right now that EVERY SINGLE ONE of the board games in a well known chain toy shop, 10 minutes away from us, are on sale for between £3 and £5 over RRP. And you know what? They keep selling them. They’re selling them to people who are buying there in the knowledge that they’re getting a better deal than an independent shop.  Just the same as the people buying their toys there…except that technically they are actually getting a better deal than the local independent toy shop, because, uh, there isn’t one of those in the city centre any more. I wonder why…

Independent shops will sometimes be more expensive, because chains can afford to run loss leaders – i.e. cherry pick certain lines that they think will sell well, and sell them at heavily discounted prices or even at a loss. They count on the fact that you’ll be blinded by the light and make the assumption that everything else they sell is also automatically cheaper than elsewhere. Not so.

There’s a second aspect to this that isn’t often considered. If you know what you want, walk in, pick it up, pay for it and walk out, then all you need to take into account is the price of the product you walk out with. However, if you walk in, pick up what you want, ask some questions on it, decide whether it’s the right or wrong product for you, discuss alternatives or upcoming releases, even have a quick demonstration of a couple of products before making your purchase, and THEN grumble about the fact it’s £2 cheaper down the road or online – well, you are not comparing like for like. You pay for what you get.

Independent retailers are all very well, but their variety of stock isn’t as good as I can find in chain stores/online. 

Let me tell you a story. Our shop is in one of Cardiff’s historic arcades, very close to the Castle, which is pretty much a must-do tourist stop. And we sell board games. So you’d think it would make sense for us to sell Cardiff Monopoly, right? Hell, yes it would. We could shift that day in, day out. Do we stock it? No. Why don’t we stock it? Because every single copy of Cardiff Monopoly in the WORLD is piled up by the tills at a well known supermarket. Because they have the muscle to buy it as it comes off the lines and stockpile it until it sells – which means we can’t get it. This isn’t an isolated case by the way – each of the last four Christmases have seen us unable to get hold of one or more ‘must have’ games, and having to send customers elsewhere to buy them. But we do that, because we think it’s our job to help our customers get what they want. That happens online/in chains too, right?

So yes, we are sometimes locked out of key product lines. But independent retailers will usually love what they sell – or at least have a keen interest in it. They’ll also probably have a very strong idea of what their customers want (as opposed to telling them what they never knew they needed, a classic chainstore advertising tactic). This means they’ll be continually seeking out new and interesting product lines for their customers, actively sourcing more unusual items and also they’ll have the product knowledge to sort the wheat from the chaff.  So while you might not be able to get this week’s hot product from your local indie shop, you’ll probably be able to get something that’s a whole lot better.

I don’t care about anything but price, and I don’t need help choosing, so I’m not losing anything by shopping online/in a chain. 

You are, actually. And you are ultimately losing something a LOT more crucial than the £2 or £5 extra you’d spend by buying from an independent retailer. What you are losing, bit by bit, is your ability to choose where you buy you stuff from. And once you have lost that, once the retail giants know that they have the monopoly on the market, what do you think they will do? Yep, they’ll rack the price up. And they will keep doing it up to the point where the demand curve levels off (you see Mr Bond, you DID teach me something in ‘A’Level Economics!) And at that point, you’ll have to make a decision on whether you continue to buy this particular product at its inflated price,  or whether you live without it.

This might not be a disaster when you’re talking about board games. It might bother you a bit more if you’re talking about books. Or clothes – and lets not forget the supply-side effects of huge buying power in the textiles market – remember  Rana Plaza?  And a little further down the line, what are you going to do when there’s only one place to buy food, and you can’t afford it?

Think it’ll never happen? Ask your elderly next door neighbour how many butchers, bakers and candlestick makers were on your local high street 40 years ago. And then take the story forward another 40. You see? This, THIS is what we all stand to lose when our independent retailers all disappear. It’s so much bigger and more scary than your 10% saving that you’ve made by sweating over a hot computer.

So there you are – three myths busted! Thank you for reading, as always – but please don’t just read and run…even if you only change one small buying choice as a result of this article, you WILL be making a difference.

Michelle, co-owner, Rules of Play, Cardiff
Photo credit – Amy Davies

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15 thoughts on “Independent retail – three myths – busted

  1. We LOVE shopping at Rules of Play, as well as the other independent shops in the arcade. It’s so nice to go in a shop where the staff not only know what they’re talking about, they love what they’re talking about. Brilliant place 🙂
    Amelia Appletree recently posted…PrejudiceMy Profile

  2. Really,really interesting to read – thank you.. It’s great to hear from a shopkeeper perspective.

    I always find that independents are also much more likely to have staff who know more about the products too x
    Mammasaurus recently posted…Win an iPad AirMy Profile

  3. Michelle,

    A great post and how true you are.

    I run an independent bike shop and we’re uniquely based in a street full of independents businesses. Every one of our businesses deliver better value and service than any of the big retail names surrounding our unique street.

    We too tire of listening to same old myths and mantras.

    Supermarkets aren’t cheaper for most things, neither is their service better.

    Best wishes
    Paul Power recently posted…A dangerous Car Park and a Twitter Spat with Councillor Paul Dendle, Arun District CouncilMy Profile

  4. What never ceases to amaze me is the short sighted ness of manufacturers in their dealings with multiples v independents.

    I’d hazard a guess that, while the mults might shift the volumes, most of their profits come from independents who can’t get the mults discounts – and when they want to push something brand new, it’s the independents who will stock it first as the mults need to see a track record before they stock.

    I we’ll remember Ottakars (RIP) who had really pushed J K Rowling from day one. For one launch, they renamed the entire chain Potterkers and opened at midnight. Their reward for this extra support? Yep, on offer at a discounted price in Tescos the same day.

    Whatever politicians might say about the energy companies, it’s nothing compared to the stranglehold the supermarkets have over the life and death of brands – not to mention the “sell the brand on special offer, delist the branded version, launch the own brand ” game the mults play.

  5. These are such important issues and you did a really good job here of defending independent retailers here. This year, I’m going to make a real effort to try to avoid buying books and DVDs from a certain online retailer that has been in the news due to how little tax it pays and the way that it treats its employees. We’ve got a great local bookshop in Bangor High Street and it would be a real shame to see it go as the street lost a great independent record shop a few years ago.
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