The reality in Kona is that the big box stores—Walmart, Target, Kmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Costco—all have huge advantages over smaller, locally owned and operated businesses and stores. They have economies of scale, and strong distribution networks, and can fill our Sunday papers with advertisements each week. If you want to sell toothpaste, paper towels, or 2’ x 4’s you are guaranteed to be beat on price and selection.
That said, there are some ways small, local businesses do well in Kona. We work with a lot of these businesses at Kona Impact and have come up with four keys to beating the big boxes, or, at least, developing a strong, sustainable business.
Develop connections with other small businesses. I am always amazed at how some small businesses in Kona will buy everything they can online or shop exclusively at chain stores and franchises, yet they expect others to buy locally. When you talk with other small business owners, participate in a paddling team, attend church, or participate in a Rotary or Lions club, you are connecting with people who might become your customers. Even more important, these local businesses have a strong “coconut wireless” system for referrals and information. Get involved. Shop locally. Get connected.
Be the source of expertise in your area. I do not expect the employee in the Walmart garden section to have any knowledge of plants. They are just there to ring up your sale. The local nurseries, however, have very knowledgeable employees and can help you figure out what grows where you’re at and what doesn’t. I don’t expect the guy at the 20-minute oil change to look at my vehicles the way my local mechanic does. Sure, he costs more, but in the end, I feel like I’m getting much more value.
Have what the big stores don’t. I watch a tens of construction guys a week pick up specialty lighting from the business across from mine. The builders know that their customers, the home buyers, want quality and specialized lighting solutions—not the kind of stuff you’ll find at Lowe’s. Kona Coast Office Supply doesn’t bother with the cheap, flimsy file cabinets you’ll find at Walmart: they have the good stuff. Keeping a good inventory of hard-to-find items and helping clients with special orders is something the big stores often fail to do.
Make it in Hawaii. Target is a huge store, about 100,000 sq ft or more, yet the “Hawaii” section is minuscule, maybe a few hundred sq ft. Walmart’s Hawaii section is mostly items not made in Hawaii! Come up with products that can only be made here, whether it is Dragon Fruit jams, Mamaki Teas, or tours in Hawaii. Go where they won’t go. Selling at the local farmers’ markets and village strolls won’t make you rich, but they are an ideal way to connect with customers and introduce them to your website, which will allow you to sell to them anywhere at any time. You also might want to try selling to Costco; they have a pretty good reputation as local sources for agriculture products and some consumer goods.
We all know it’s ridiculous to try and beat the big box stores at their own game. You don’t need to; there are many local businesses and people that are eager to buy locally and support their community. The key is to offer something the big stores can’t, whether it is specialized products or services or awesome customer service.