Winning against the chain store

Yesterday, I sat down in a store that’s part of a Montana-based coffee shop chain. I wanted a quick cup and I had about an hour to write before a young man’s Eagle Board that was down the street, so this location was a perfect fit.

I drove past Starbucks to reach this place. I try to visit locally owned places whenever possible, and like many, I’m a creature of habit. This place has spent a lot of time as my writing venue over the years. The visit reminded me of some reasons why the chain store wins your neighborhood.

Habitual habitat

I admit that when it comes to coffee, I’m not most people. Maybe I’m a coffee nerd. Even so, let me shine a light on some reasons why people go to their place instead of your place – and most of them have nothing to do with coffee – unless they’re coffee nerds too.

When I visit a coffee shop, I tend to seek out a place that roasts its own beans every week rather than using what was trucked to them after being roasted and packaged months ago.

I sit at the same table in this particular shop, if possible. It’s out of the sun and elevated so I can sit or stand and work, and it has its own power outlet. From that perch, I can see the entire store and observe customer service and other things that I write about.

What changed?

I hadn’t been in this shop for a while, so the absence made it easier to notice what was different.

The outlet next to “my” table had been fixed. It had been loose for years, so being rid of that looseness was nice.

When I ordered a mug, I got a paper cup. They still have mugs. I rarely take coffee to go. I prefer ceramic. Hey, I warned you.

The coffee was lawsuit hot. In other words – way too hot, even to sip. 10 minutes later, it was drinkable. Do you have any idea how long that wait is for someone who is enjoying the aroma of a new-to-them coffee that they can’t wait to taste? Reminder: I said I wasn’t a normal coffee drinker.

I ordered a pastry. In the old days, I was always asked if I wanted it warmed up (whatever “it” might be). Regardless of my answer, they’d deliver it on a plate with a fork rather than ask me to stand at the counter and wait on it. This time, it was handed to me across the counter, still in cellophane. No wait, but no plate and no “Would you like it warmed up?”

You might think these details are silly, but these are the kinds of details that transform an average experience at a nearby shop into “the only place they’ll go for recreational gathering place coffee”, much less “Simply can’t work at home today coffee”.

I’d guess that the real change since my last visit relates to who trains the staff and how. They were cordial, friendly and all that – but the experience had changed.

What didn’t change?

I was greeted when I entered.

Once it cooled, the coffee (a new one this time) was excellent.

Once I unwrapped it, the pastry was excellent despite not being warmed up.

The wifi worked.

I had a quiet place to write for an hour.

What about Starbucks?

What are you doing to stand out from the “sterile” parts of a national chain? What are you doing to make me drive past the chain store to go to your place – other than being locally owned?

Not all of you own a coffee shop, but most have a national chain or regional player in your market. Seek parallels. Take the stuff they do well (like consistency) and use it to improve your place. Ignore the stuff they do poorly, other than to eliminate it from your place. Stand out by making yours the only place they’ll go – and make sure everyone knows why.

Don’t think that a national chain can’t appear in your market. In less than a year, my favorite little town of 4000 people has gained two national auto parts chain stores.

Stand out before you have no choice. Many of the things you might do are things that the chains aren’t allowed to do.

tl:dr – Training. Metrics. Detail.