Hello Cleveland! Stephanie here. I’m the boss behind Cleveland Flea, and I’m excited to have this conversation with all you local-loving, small-biz-supporting folks.
I know you love local, small batch, creative. But do you really know how to support these hard-working, daring people?
I’ve been running this small business incubator for 6 seasons and it’s been a million times harder than I believed it would be, and that’s also the reason that there are not many people out there doing what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, where I’m doing it, and at the scale I’m doing it. I’ll explain more about that later but let’s first get into the supporting of small businesses (including mine).
If you say you love small brands and want more of them to thrive in Cleveland, I’m here to tell you how you can do more of that. And it doesn’t JUST have to do with money.
Now, most of you are kind, generous, thoughtful individuals who would never yell at a small business for running out of something or suggest a 1-person operation to allow you to come to their home (that they share with their family) at 10pm on Christmas Eve to pick up a gift that you put off purchasing for months just so you can win Christmas.
I know that is not you. You just would never do that. But just in case, here’s a set of guidelines that you can use to TRULY support people who are working super hard to deliver you superior gifts and services even though it is nearly impossible to do so when there are giant retailers out there that can do nearly-impossible things for you with little-to-no-cost to themselves.
Read this and use it so that you can stay on Santa’s good list this holiday season.
A HOLIDAY GUIDE TO SUPPORTING SMALL, LOCAL BUSINESSES.
Stop the haggling. People price their own items so that they can pay their bills and feed their families. You wouldn’t go into a grocery store and begin haggling, would you? But honestly a bigger store (not a 1-person operation) IS the place to haggle if you want to. In the startup world (that’s when you’re a business who is still figuring itself out) you already have a TON of costs and uncertainties and these businesses probably aren’t even charging ENOUGH for their work to begin with. Accept the pricing or don’t buy from a small business.
Realize that small businesses are not businesses, they’re humans. Isn’t that what you LIKE about them? So, when you’re approaching a small business owner, and they’re out of something or they had to close early or they don’t have the flavor your want (etc.) just realize that you are in a relationship with a PERSON not a business (because remember I just told you that small businesses are actually people) and sometimes people are not perfect. No small business owner can afford to make everyone happy. It’s impossible. Stop asking for it. When you criticize someone for ‘not being a good enough business’ you (you guessed it) are not supporting small. You’re being a jerk.
Stop questioning business owners because you are disappointed in some way. You lack information. And you come across as rude, as well as kinda lacking in credibility. Trust me, there is a TON you don’t know about how tough it is to start, run and learn within a small business and you approaching from a ‘customer knows best’ perspective (when you actually do not otherwise you wouldn’t even be doing it) makes you into a jerk. Forcing people to overexplain to you why, for example, their Incubator Flea Market has to charge you $1, $5 or even $20 to get in the doors is so unbecoming of you. It reveals just how little you know about business and the real world of small businesses AND it also reveals that you are actually a jerk who does not support small (see point #1).
Be curious. But be kind about it. I think what’s truly interesting about supporting small, local business owners is that you can ask questions about how things are made. Makers LOVE telling you all about their process. It’s their expertise. In our case, our expertise is in coaxing and supporting a bunch of humans into dealing with the onslaught of emotions that come along with launching a successful creative small business (trust me it’s a real trip) AND also dealing with City, State & Federal regulations that surround a food / drink / entertainment business AND also learning the ropes of being a kick-ass hospitality company (yeah, we do plan parties for ya) as a start up ourselves. What does that mean? We are climbing a mountain (this is really hard and really complex and takes a lot of stamina) and so often while we’re climbing that mountain carrying you (our shoppers) and you (our small businesses) you constantly tell us what we’re doing wrong and why we should be ashamed about it. We won’t accept your thoughts. So, keep them to yourself unless they’re a THANK YOU or a “how do you do all this?!”. And that goes for the rest of these small business owners, too. They are daring greatly. They are doing their best. They WANT you to be happy and impressed. So, if you don’t have anything nice to say you probably don’t know how to support small. And luckily we’re writing this guide for you.
Don’t apply the same expectations to small brands as you do to big brands. Small brands are usually run by 1-10 people. Big brands are usually hundreds if not thousands of people (and sometimes even way more). Each offers what their energy allows and small brands run out of energy much faster than big brands. Small brands are run by humans that are spread super thin. What they offer is what they can offer. Asking above and beyond that is probably beyond their capability. Again, you can ask kindly, but accept the answer that you’re given with grace. Customer disappointment is a thing for those who love small brands (they’re out of the size you wanted, they can’t ship it over night, they don’t yet sell in your area yet, etc) and you just have to allow them grace, otherwise (you know what I’m going to say here) you don’t support small.
Say Thank You. It’s pretty simple, but small business life is really challenging. A thank you goes a long way because typically the person on the receiving end of the thank you is not feeling all that grand. The inner workings of bringing a small business to life is not all fun and games and chill and hanging out at home writing blog posts or crafting beautiful bags. That’s definitely initially what drew people to their professions but the pressures of capitalism (of keeping up with what customers expect) is overwhelming and no one is actually prepared for it. Many small businesses don’t have support systems of people get what it’s like to do what they do, but even just acknowledging their craft or saying thanks can be enough to get them through. Providing something to the world that brings value and is truly appreciated is why many small business owners do what they do.
Don’t compare their products to what you can get at a big box store. Again, the positives with shopping small are usually: better ingredients, greater worker welfare, contribution to the local economy in which you live, high quality design, superb care in production, innovative or different approaches, thoughtful details and a more connection-based shopping experience. Price will most likely have to be higher than what a big box store can provide. If you know anything about scale, you’ll understand that if you can buy ingredients in huge quantities then your price per item will be less. That’s just one tiny reason stuff at big box stores is less money. They have more buying power. What we all do (including us) is create a custom experience for you all that is higher value for the money. Handmade, small-batch does actually cost less from a small maker than it would to get that same quality from a bigger brand, because the bigger brands can’t deliver on that same level of quality without raising their own prices a ton. When you scale up A LOT, you prioritize cutting cost over providing quality. And the big brands that don’t do that charge a lot for what they do. The ones that can charge a lot less are cutting corners somewhere, you can bet on it.
So, the next time you’re headed to a small shop or market full of small brands, ask yourself if you do actually support small or if you’re just in it for you. Shopping small is a relationship. It’s a participation sport. Good customers support good businesses. Be kind and thoughtful and thankful and curious and you will get that in return. And please, stop the criticizing. Know that we’re all trying our best. And we hope you are, too.