This past weekend, my husband and I were out for a drive on our local country back roads and passed through several nearby small towns. We were struck by the signage on many stores, where we saw not one business, but listings of multiple services and businesses within the same four walls. Our feeling was that we were seeing more of them than ever.
Some clusters of signs ‘made sense’ in that that you could immediately understand the logic of the businesses or services grouped together, likely being managed by the same person or family.
Like towing services and auto repair at a gas station. Or a restaurant that also offers catering services and great salsa in four flavors ready to go in canning jars. You could easily figure out the proprietor’s expertise and their interests.
Multiple streams of water feeding into a river usually make for a strong, steady flow of water. The analogy of multiple streams of income all contributing to a stronger, steadier flow of income makes sense, especially these days. Combining products and services that complement each other under one strong roof is usually considered good business advice, and a sound strategy that strengthens one’s ‘personal brand.’
But the branding logic in rural America starts to fall apart when you see business marriages being made among more diverse products and services:
• a land surveyor who also sells photocopying and print services
• a Bed & Breakfast that offers art classes and sells clothing from their retail shop
• a photography studio, art and framing gallery, tea room, and UPS/FedEx shipping center
• a JC Penney Catalog distributor, selling real estate, pottery gallery, watch repair, address and custom street signs
• a screenprinter, uniform supplier, coffee bar, plastic outdoor furniture, shipping supplies, dry cleaner drop-off, and UPS/FedEx shipping center.
What is the logic in a rural small town that seems to hold these constellations of businesses together? A perceived gap in the community where a produce or service doesn’t exist? A willingness by the small business owner to respond to that need? A need to pay the rent? A need to supplement what ‘retirement’ income there is, or is left?
In some cases, a gap may truly exist, and the product or service not be offered within a community. But perhaps the reason the product or service is not offered is that there is little or no market for them. Just because a particular product or service doesn’t exist in a town, doesn’t necessarily mean no one has thought of it before, or already tried it. Perhaps someone else has already tried and failed, or everybody else who considered the idea rejected it as not practical or profitable.
So – how do rural small town business owners make their decisions to cluster unrelated products and services? How do they market them, when the very idea seems to break so many of the rules of good business planning? How do customers view them, support them, or even remember who’s offering what?
It’s all in the context. In rural America, the ‘logic’ that holds these multiple streams of income together is that they are offered by the same individual. The products and services don’t have to fit together, they just have to fit the individual.
Because in a rural town where most everybody knows each other, or is just two degrees of separation away instead of six, what makes sense is just different.
The news that “Annie” is going to start offering tea and locally made pastries from her photography studio on Thursdays and Fridays (and most Saturdays if she doesn’t have a wedding to shoot), is good news in a small town that doesn’t currently have someplace unique to take their visiting relatives from out-of-town.
And it’s understandable that Thursday and Friday were the days selected for the tea room to be open, because those are days when more tourists are in town. Annie still has that extra space from when the artist that used to rent it had to leave, her mother loves baking and can even cover the tea room and sell her muffins and pastries. A lot of people agree the tea room might be a good source of additional income for Annie, and plan to check it out if her hours are right.
Multiple sources of income, multiple businesses and revenue, are commonplace in rural America because they make sense in many ways. These multiple sources of income come in handy during times of economic uncertainty, when one stream of income might be more vulnerable to fluctuation than others. Remember the old adage ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ came from rural America. If you drop the one basket or your wagon goes over a bump, there go the eggs. If they’re in separate baskets, you might salvage some and have something to sell at market – or something to eat yourself.
In Annie’s case, potential customers will still be getting married, but may ask a cousin to take wedding photos instead of hiring a photographer. Or if they do hire Annie as a photographer, perhaps the wedding photo package they buy won’t be as large. Since it’s usually a little harder to sell artwork and framed photography in an economic downturn, enticing customers inside with a hot cup of tea on a cold winter day might work. Especially if she’s printed some of her best photos as note cards and priced them reasonably as souvenirs.
If we run into the multiple sources of income phenomenon online, we find it confusing. We probably have no idea who the owner of the website or blog is, and form our opinions about their expertise and yes, their character, based on what we see and what we read. Do they know what they’re doing? Can’t they make up their mind what they want to do? Why are they diluting their brand? And are they really making money from all those ads they have running down the side of the page?
On the web we don’t have the same context in which to interpret the multiple directions these diverse services could take us in. But in a small rural town, multiple sources of income are usually person-centered or based on perceived town needs. Only time will tell whether those needs are really real, or just perceived. We all know appearances can be deceiving. But social networks are also strong. A loyal customer base will work hard to make sure you stay in business, if only so you’ll be there when they need you.
In the meantime, the current ‘owner’ of the UPS/FedEx shipping center in our town wants to give it up. It’s made the rounds of at least five businesses in the last few years, because it’s not very profitable and requires all day staffing Monday through Friday. But our small town needs somebody, somewhere to continue to offer this important service.
I wonder who’s going to take it on next?