We don’t usually view businesses in that way, do we? It’s not one of the regular aims of a business, to be held in affection by any party. We are far more transactional than that. We provide a product or service, customers gain some utility, they pay us.
We provide employment and income, staff give us their labour. Shareholders get a return on their investment. Suppliers get payment in exchange for their offerings. That is all. None of these people have to like us.
Really? If those are your views, that’s where you miss out, big time. Being liked — by employees, customers, investors, partners — is a huge power to hold.
But first, a mystery story.
Britain was once called a nation of shopkeepers, which was perhaps intended as a derogatory remark. And yet it remains true today. You would have expected the local corner shop — the convenience store — to have been wiped out by now.
The huge grocery supermarkets should have put local shops into critical care. And the rapid onset of home delivery via technology should have been the final nail in the coffin.
And yet there they still are. The Guardian newspaper recently ran a long piece on the unputdownable corner shop, calling it the cat with nine lives. Britons should be too price-conscious and too busy to trudge over to the shop at the end of the street in the cold. And yet they still do.
There are still nearly 50,000 convenience stores in the UK, most of them selling everything from fruit and vegetables, home staples, magazines, SIM cards — and a whole load else. They are often family-owned and family-run, often by people who immigrated there, or their descendants.
Most of these corner shops don’t have low prices; they don’t have vast selections of goods; they don’t have mobile apps and home delivery. So what on earth do they have? There’s a mystery waiting to be solved here, because the number of such stores and their share of food sales is actually on the rise in the UK.
Here in Kenya, the kaduka phenomenon also continues apace. I wrote about this in early 2022, when the Covid pandemic had allowed savvy, small, local duka guys to supply more things to more people in their hoods, using riders on bicycles to deliver everything from maziwa na mkate to pasta to gas cylinders.
Why are these tiny operators still going strong? Why haven’t people gone back to the car parks and large shopping trolleys of big supermarkets; and why don’t they just order all their regular staples online, now that it’s quite possible?
The first reason, folks, is about personal service. Local shops know their customers. They build intimate knowledge of their situations, needs, and buying patterns. They stock their shops accordingly, and usually have a very good idea of what sells in that neighbourhood. And they are nimble enough to source whatever is missing on their shelves — they go the extra mile to find it for you.
A second reason is about a forgotten word: community. We humans need to feel bonded to others. In different degrees, of course — but even diehard introverts need human connections, in all sorts of ways. This applies to business as well, yet many modern firms have forgotten this element of selling.
Local shopkeepers often become the human centre of neighbourhoods, just like places of worship, pubs and clubs do. People of a certain age go to shops not just to tick off a shopping list, but also to make human contact.
I have a third reason that these enterprises continue to be present, and that is about appreciation of human endeavour. We are all very grateful when nearby shops are available at all hours. We all value hard work in others; we all appreciate it when we benefit from it; and we all have a bias towards the “little guy”.
We know these industrious folks are feeding their own families and educating their children using our purchases. We are predisposed to continue buying from them.
Intimate customer knowledge, personal service, creating a little community of shoppers and sellers, and generating respect and empathy for the hard work involved. Those are the big reveals in this mystery.
You may notice that they are precisely the things that big businesses really struggle to deliver — or have forgotten completely. When was the last time you felt your bank or big-box supermarket knows you well?
Do you ever rock up at the offices of a big business because you feel like chatting with the people there? Is dealing with a large corporation a pleasuresome habit in your life? Do you wish success and advancement for the shareholders of a megacorp?
So, if you’re the boss of a heavyweight corporation, used to beating efficiencies and financial results out of your enterprise, perhaps you could take the rest of this Sunday to ponder something quite important: how do I bring the humanity back into my business?
Let me help with you with that next week.