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A shop closed in our small city a few weeks ago.  It doesn’t matter as much what she sold exactly as much as the owner’s explanation for the close: “no one buys widgets anymore.” I thought about this today as I saw her wares at a pop-up Christmas market.  A woman I didn’t know was handling the booth.  The owner wasn’t there.  I didn’t expect her to be.

Perhaps it’s not that “no one buys widgets anymore”.  Instead, I think know that it’s that no one buys anything anymore.  We did once. But in today’s world when we can get everything we could ever want without even leaving home, we expect more.  We buy a connection, a feeling, a story, an emotion.  If you aren’t selling those, you’ll be out of business as quickly as Suzanne was.  Ironically, the products that Suzanne sold were stories; one of a kind pieces that essentially could sell themselves. But as inanimate objects, they need someone to speak for them.  Instead of being there to tell their story and make a sale, however, Suzanne was seldom present in her shop.  She had “interns” or friends in the shop who didn’t know the stories well nor had the passion that she did.  Interns or others represeting the shop were the ones who asked about hanging flyers for upcoming events. She seldom did.  Suzanne didn’t follow back those who followed her on social media, reTweet their Tweets or “like” their Facebook updates. What Suzanne did do was complain about the sad state of her business. To anyone who would listen.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we have so many thriving food stops here in Durham is not that we like to eat (although we do) but that food service people* tend to be the ones who get that connection is key.  View More: http://deathtothestockphoto.pass.us/brick-and-mortarWhy else would I spend $4.50 on an 8 oz coffee?  Because Leon or Areli grind the coffee by hand, while I watch fascinated and listen to them telling me about where the coffee comes from.  Because they always ask about Elisabeth by name.  Because when I told Leon almost a year ago that I wasn’t working full-time, he told me that I was because I was caring for Elisabeth.  Connection is everything.  And of course this is more important for small business that anyone else.

There are other shops who sell widgets in our city.  Quite a few actually.  Some have been around for decades.  None may be thriving but they appear to be doing okay.  [Additional, complimentary revenue streams help most balance widget sales and keep them in the black, is my guess.]  But I think some of them get it.  They are the face of their small business.  No one else.  They know that people like talking to the owner.  They seem to know that a story is essential to a sale.  They spend time in their own shop.

So, don’t complain that no one buys widget anymore and it happens to be what you sell. No one buys anything anymore.  We buy the inanimate feeling you give us when you tell us the story behind the widget.  And the widget?  It’s a memento of the feeling that we had when we talked to you.

For more on connecting with your customers via a story, see Bernadette Jiwa’s website, The Story of Telling. Her work taught me much of the language (and how to) behind connecting with customers.  Perhaps you too get why connecting is important but are less clear on how to do it?  Bernadette’s books (and website!) are the resource for you.

*Of which I have always been one, since age 16 when I was hired in a gourmet grocert story because I was old enough to work the slicer.