Indies Believe They Are Better Positioned Than Chains to Weather Amazon’s Growth

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While news coverage during the holiday season often focuses on national chain retailers and the growth of online retailing, there may be an important — and under-reported — story on Main Street. According to a recent national survey, independent retailers believe they are better equipped than chains to weather seismic shifts in the retail landscape.

On Wednesday, November 15, the Advocates for Independent Business (AIB), a coalition of trade associations (including the American Booksellers Association) and other allied organizations that represent locally owned, independent businesses, released the results of a national survey detailing how indies are responding to current business challenges. The survey, “Independent Retailers and the Changing Retail Landscape,” also provides insight into how these businesses perceive the way their unique and distinct attributes help them survive, and thrive, in a tough, competitive retail environment.

“It’s clear that consumers have discovered that independent bookstores, along with our other Main Street businesses, offer incomparable value,” said Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. Teicher noted that there has been a 35 percent increase in the number of independent bookstore locations in the U.S. since 2009. “The continued strength of independent bookselling reflects the critical importance of localism and community to consumers. By focusing on their unique strengths — helping customers find just the right book, creating engaging events, instilling a love of reading in children — bookstores provide consumers with much more for their dollar than a faceless online retailer ever could.”

The AIB survey reports that as bricks-and-mortar retail faces new stresses, the impacts appear to be playing out differently for independent retailers than for chains. “Nearly twice as many survey respondents believe that the growth of Amazon is having a bigger impact on chains than on independent retailers,” the study notes. “Thirty-six percent say Amazon’s rise is impacting chains more than it’s impacting independents, compared to 20 percent who say it’s affecting independent retailers more.” Another 30 percent of respondents said Amazon’s growth was impacting chain and independent retailers about the same. However, while respondents believe that independents are better positioned to survive Amazon’s growth, 90 percent of respondents also report that Amazon is having a negative impact on their business.

The survey, which gathered data from more than 850 independent retailers in 49 U.S. states, comes as national chains are declaring bankruptcy, malls are losing anchor stores and smaller businesses, and e-commerce continues to grow. Headlines have started referring to an “historic tipping point” for American retail. Reporting on this issue, however, has focused almost exclusively on national chains.

“These findings provide valuable insights for local officials assessing how best to sustain the economic vitality of their communities,” said Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which conducted the survey on behalf of AIB. “While many malls and chain stores are going dark, independent retailers are a better bet for the future. Many offer distinct attributes that customers can’t find at Amazon or most chain stores, and they have something more to offer their communities. For these small businesses to thrive, though, officials need to do more to ensure they have a level playing field.”

The survey’s findings include:

  • Two-thirds of survey respondents report that, despite their smaller size, they have been able to respond to shifts in their sector as well as or better than national chains have.
  • Independent retailers identify distinct characteristics that they say give independents an advantage over chains as the retail landscape changes. Survey respondents cite four qualities as especially important: personalized service, connection with community, product expertise, and the events and experiences they provide in their stores.
  • Eighty-three percent report that there have been chain store closures in their area that have left behind vacant spaces, and 17 percent describe the extent of these closures as “significant.” A majority of survey respondents — 51 percent — report that they see opportunities for independents in widespread chain store closures.
  • Despite the ways that these shifts are poised to impact local economies, only 9 percent of survey respondents say that there has been “a lot” of discussion and coverage of the issue locally, and 43 percent say that there’s been “very little” or “none.”

AIB is a coalition of 10 national trade associations and allied organizations that represent locally owned, independent businesses.