Commercial Currents: Innovating to succeed in small markets

Stephenie MacLagan
Posted 2016-12-13

Successful general stores find innovation essential.

Along the coast of Maine, and especially on islands and long peninsulas, general stores host the hustle and bustle in these otherwise tranquil communities. While some are closing their doors permanently, there are many others that are finding ways to not only survive but really thrive!

Even when communities heavily rely on local stores, it may not be enough to balance the scales between revenue and expanses for the store owner. Often there just aren’t very many customers in these small towns, and customers are increasingly turning to other sources for their groceries and supplies. Store owners are finding success when they innovate.

Several examples of innovation were highlighted in a report on general stores recently commissioned by the Island Institute. Some approaches simply maximize existing revenue streams, while others involve a new or more focused direction for the store. One thing all these examples have in common is thoughtful planning, and Island Institute staff can help with that!

Are there groups in your community who aren’t your customers, or only one or a few members of that group are your customers? Think about fishermen, contractors, day-trippers, etc. Consider targeting these groups with your advertising or the services you provide. As these customers start to surface, you’ll identify how you can tailor your products for what they want or need.

The Island Market and Supply on Swan’s Island

“Be consistent in all that you do” is common advice for producing goods and services; customers want the same experience time and again. This also applies to how you operate. General store owners have found that consistent hours of operation, from day to day and in the days open year-round, is important to customers. Consider your expenses, and you may even find efficiencies in refining your hours and days of operation.

Try to maximize existing streams of revenue, like being that community center! Do you find customers linger to socialize with one another or even make business deals over that cup of fishermen’s coffee? Foster this and your store may become the place for everyone to visit (and purchase goods!) on a regular basis.

Remember to plan for the summer. When shelves go bare, customers not only become frustrated with taking the time to stop in but you also lose out on potential sales! In addition to stocking up well, consider a delivery service in the summer, especially in areas where weekly rentals are dense or where there are a lot of contractors working.

Many general stores just need larger markets, so owners expand the customer base or add revenue streams. The Island Market and Supply on Swan’s Island grew its customer base by starting a delivery service to the neighboring island of Frenchboro. Brian Krafjack, store owner, purchased the delivery boat with the help of the Island and Coastal Innovation Fund. The Island Employee Cooperative on Deer Isle added garden supplies to one of its markets.

Innovations don’t have to be large to have a large impact. In fact careful review of your sales can illuminate areas of opportunity. Whether it’s this review of the books, business planning for an expansion or new direction, or developing a marketing strategy, Island Institute staff can provide assistance to help. The Island and Coastal Business Launchpad helps entrepreneurs navigate these complexities and obtain resources.

Read the full report: Maine’s Coastal General Stores

Find resources to help you innovate:
What We Do

The Island Institute’s Economic Development program works to improve economic productivity and allow businesses to expand and reach new markets. To learn more about our small business support services, feel free to contact Bri Warner.

Commercial Currents is for Maine’s island and coastal small businesses. To find archived editions, go to Know someone who’d enjoy these emails? Subscribe here.