Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

The “We Suck Less” Strategy for Main Street

During peak shopping seasons, many people roll out the trite claim that online vendors are hurting local vendors. Truth is, most Main Street vendors are doing a fine job of killing their business, all by themselves.

There are four coffee shops on Main Street in my town. I pass by them all on my way to work. Two national franchises, one regional brand, and a local concern offer the usual: hot coffee, bagels and muffins. Each has a slightly different proposition: The Italian-style coffee, the home-brewed cup, the cheap-in-styrofoam, and bad coffee but great bagels.

Yet I’d rather have a root canal than shop at any of them.

The first shop I pass is a classic assembly line. Order by number at the register, pick up at the end of the counter. But the staff are so poorly trained that when you order a “Number 5, regular” you have to dissect it anyway. That’s a bacon-egg-and-cheese on a bagel with a medium, hot coffee with cream and sugar. And we all know who says Please and Thank you in that conversation.

The second shop is, I suspect, a secret place of torture. At least that’s how the two young ladies behind the counter act as they grudgingly, tediously serve their locally brewed coffee. Not even botox accounts for their inability to form a smile. Their robotic, eye-contact-less approach to starting your day has you wishing for another hour’s sleep.

Next comes the Mega Brand, where customers line up out the door regularly. Some might say that’s a good sign, that customers like the experience and desire the product. Actually, it’s the sign of monumental mismanagement and lack of training. The only reason the line is so long is that, of the four people working, only one is producing coffee. The others are over-stocking the napkins; sweeping; or re-writing the specials on the chalkboard. None seems to know that customers waiting for coffee are inherently impatient.

Directly next door is the regional brand. Here, the coffee is terrible, but the bagels are tasty. Unfortunately, the leaderless staff has someone decided that sickly sweet is an appropriate replacement for respectfully polite. The employees say things like, What would you like, honey? Do you want cream cheese on that, sweetie? Here’s your bagel, dearie.

Acceptable language, were it coming from a grandmotherly-type employee; but from a thirty-something, it’s downright creepy.

Ironically, none of these companies sell products that Amazon or Zappos can compete for, but we wish they could. The inventory isn’t rare, hard to handle, or dangerous to serve. Yet none do it in a way that customers enjoy the experience. In fact, my morning coffee purchase has become an exercise in the following calculation:

Which of the dreaded coffee shop experiences will suck less this morning?

Such calculations, we suspect, are rampant across all product categories these days. Which electronics store will feature the less headache-inducing lighting? Which supermarket feature the less dirty cashiers? Which cell phone store employs the less un-knowledgable staff? Which clothing store will have less blaring music?

Everywhere we turn, we’re looking for the places that suck less to shop.

Service shops aren’t immune either. Find an insurance agency where the secretary welcomes you to the office. You can’t. Call a real estate company whose administrator answers the phone using clear pronunciation. You won’t. Find an airline where the dread doesn’t begin at the first thought of travel. Not in America, at least.

None of which is to say that online vendors don’t have their troubles, too. Some websites are insane to shop. Others won’t stop emailing you after the purchase. Remote vendors can make returns a nightmare. There are plenty of opportunities for customer experience failure online and off.

If you’ve been shaking your head at our little description of local shops, you’re not alone. Which is to say that blaming online companies for the downward spiral of Main Street is the wrong diagnosis. Even with the notably good exceptions in retail, in air travel, in electronics.

Instead, our story suggests other reasons why online shopping is so popular. It’s not just the free shipping (a trade off against instant gratification) or expanded inventory. It’s more, but simpler. The ability to avoid a bad shopping experience appeals to most of us. The opportunity to get what we want, without getting everything we don’t: the eye-rolling, sighing, frowning, mumbling, un-thanking person we’d have to deal with on Main Street.

Online vendors certainly pose a challenge to local vendors’ pricing, selection and convenience propositions. But I’m not alone in going out of my way tofrequent the local tailor, whose service is impeccable and experience relaxing, yet pricing and selection limited. I love browsing the pale blue box jeweler’s store; a place of solace in the noisy city mall. My local real estate broker’s office is a fun place to enter, it’s energy and enthusiasm encouraging.

So maybe Main Street’s problem isn’t that it’s losing the fight on pricing, selection or taxes. It could be that today’s Main Street shops are becoming ugly, brutish places to visit. If Amazon’s experience is better when served by a computer than the local bookstore’s shop staffed by people, then can we really say it’s tax-free shopping that’s taking the business away from Main Street?


  • Anne Webster

    Great blog Matt!  I’m sure I could name every shop you refer to above.  I agree.  We have stopped being polite and nice for goodness sake.  For many, being nice is only to get something in return.  I subscribe to the philosophy of just plain “be nice to others” regardless.  I ingrain “please” and “thank yous” in the heads of my children so I can hopefully raise polite and respectful young adults.  Thank you for reminding us of that timeless treasure of a smile and please/thank you!

  • Anne:
    Thanks for our comment. It’s really so amazing how SIMPLE it would be for these little shops to EXCEL and capture customer loyalty. I don’t even want a discount or a special treatment; just HUMANE treatment!
    – MF

  • Crispin:
    There are indeed many good little shops lately; especially in the South End. But take a walk over to Newbury or venture though the Prudential Mall and you’ll see exactly what I mean. About 1 in 3 are wonderful; and 2 out of 3 act like you’re asking them to climb Mt Everest when you’re just trying to give them your money!
    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Michelle:

    WOW! That’s insane – he couldn’t sell it??? It’s almost like clerks who can’t give you the exact change if the register doesn’t tell them what it is.
    Maybe it’s a wider issue: The ability to THINK…. I’ve been seeing this problem for some years now. People can REACT to a stimulus, but can they still “think things through”?
    Maybe that’s why I prefer the self-checkout aisle at the supermarket?

    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Another great post, Matt, and written with great humor – “And we all know who says Please and Thank you in the conversation.”  Priceless.

    I’m with you but this is a deeper issue than just being trained and being polite. Although, those are greatly important. It has to do with the fact that these employees are barely paid subsistence wages, little or no benefits and required to work sporadic schedules based on the whim of the store management or whoever calls in sick or quits that day.

    Yes, I know that’s no excuse for being a zombie or training employees to call you snookums but work satisfaction and sense of achievement or contribution go a long way to being a little more genuinely friendly and efficient.

    In an earlier blog post you wrote about the fatigue and sense of defeat many real estate practitioners feel.  Multiply that many times over for the hourly wage slave.

    We can’t all be motivated, “go get ’em” entrepreneurs. When we’re not, we get stuck serving coffee and filling napkin containers in order to make the rent.

    Hell, I feel like that and I’m a “go get ’em” real estate marvel.  🙂

  • Ken:
    Thanks for your comments – and I agree, we should approach how we employee people much differently than most companies do. Companies need to offer a decent wage (within market norms) and a predictable schedule, plus some on-the-job training, because that’s what’s best for their CUSTOMERS as well we for their employees. In return, they should be able to hire people who are enthusiastic about their job, care about doing it well, and show some commitment to everyday manners. Both parts of the equation are necessary.
    At the same time, I’m reminded of an old saying my mother used to say: Even poor people are clean, because soap is cheap. In other words, even if you have a crappy schedule and you can’t earn as much as you’d like, you can still do a great job in the things you can control. In fact, doing a good job when the conditions are sub-optimal is one of the very reasons employees get noticed, get raises, and get promoted.
    In any case, whatever the reasons, customer are deciding for themselves. That’s why smart leaders always compensate well, train well, but expect more. And why you’ll find some local companies doing well in every condition, against every competitor. Unfortunately, they are becoming fewer and further in between….
    Thanks for stopping by!

  • Point well taken, Matthew. And your mother was a wise woman. Now, where’d I put that soap?

  • Davidhorowitz

    iI didn’t realize you’d moved to northern NJ. You mean to tell me that it’s equally bad in Andover?
    what, no New England charm?

    Just imagine how much more business could be done with just a little effort!

  • Angela Galvin

    Absolutely !! I shop on line for my groceries because it is quicker not cheaper- being able to have my groceries delivered at 6am and have a cheerful young man carry them into my kitchen for me is a priceless customer service experience.

  • All of this reminds me of one of my favorite sayings (that I have hanging on my office wall to remind em every day):

    “Doing what’s required only prevents customer dissatisfaction. You must do more than is required to truly satisfy a customer.”

    Happy Holidays

  • Always great advice, Sean! Happy holidays to you, too!
    – M

  • Karen Brewer

    I try hard to shop locally.Independant bookstores are a good example of where people really love what they do,why else be a David to Amazons,Goliath. There are other places in Darien, the local jeweler,the mens wear shop who does alterations,stuff like that. The online thing for me is just a convenience.Why schlep to Best Buy and deal with that when the very same item is a click away. The merchants in my little CT try hard and many OWN the shops involved and THAT makes a huge difference.