Small Business

Searching for Indie America


Two filmmakers hit the road to examine how mom-and-pop stores were faring against big-box retailers across the U.S. Here's what they found

In early 2005, husband-and-wife filmmaking team Hanson Hosein and Heather Hughes spent 52 days driving 13,000 miles through 32 states with a video camera. Their mission: to document how mom-and-pop independents were faring, faced with fierce competition from big-box retailers, as well as how small communities were changing across America.

They set rules for their trip, which included only shopping and eating at independent establishments and avoiding interstate highways. The result is their video documentary, Independent America, which came out in November, 2005. Hughes and Hosein produced the independent feature on a shoestring and never found a distributor, but the film has been steadily gaining in popularity through word of mouth. And since Yahoo! (YHOO) began featuring clips of the film on its site starting in mid-December, response has become more widespread, with record visits to the film's Web site and strong DVD sales.

Hughes and Hosein are both accomplished television news anchors, writers, and producers, who have worked for CHBC Television in British Columbia, NBC News, USAID, and MSNBC in southern Africa, Iraq, Israel, and throughout the Middle East. The couple recently spoke with BusinessWeek.com reporter Jeffrey Gangemi about what they found on their travels and what they hope their film conveys to the world. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

To view a trailer for the film, go to www.independentamerica.net.

Where did you get the idea for Independent America?

Hosein: We've pretty much lived around the world, in New York, Paris, Tel Aviv, Montreal, and Toronto. In all those cities, we always had good relationships with independent and small businesses.

After we got married and moved to a smaller town in British Columbia, we were quite surprised by the proliferation of big-box stores in the area. We got worried about the smaller, independent retailers and restaurants. In 2003, when I got back from covering the war in Iraq, we thought we would take a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway to see if we could figure out whether mom-and-pop stores were really dying or not. A couple of years later, we decided to film a national documentary about the phenomenon.

Are mom-and-pop on the ropes?

Hughes: It depends where you go. There are some places that have been devastated by chain retail, and there are some areas that are absolutely thriving. There are a lot of small businesses going out of business, and a lot of downtown areas that we drove through that were absolutely empty, total ghost towns. I wouldn't say they're on the ropes, but they're not always going to be there. Because if we don't shop there, pay attention, or engage, then they won't be there.

Are independents banding together at all to fight the chains?

Hosein: We went to Durango, Colo., because we heard that the Starbucks (SBUX) had been vandalized twice. We found that there are three independent coffee shops on the main street, and rather than compete with each other, they started a program to defend themselves against Starbucks. It's called "think globally, drink locally," and it involves sharing promotions and coupons among the stores.

In many communities, there's a sense that you have to come up with a new way of thinking. You can't sit back and rest on your laurels, hoping people are going to support you.

Hughes: Another very powerful place for us to visit was Barre, Vt. There's a farmer there by the name of Todd Murphy, who opened a diner just so that he could source local meat, produce, and to help farmers have a way to bring their products to market. He tries not to source any products from more than 50 miles away.

Where did you find the strongest sense of community?

Hosein: The climax of the film was in Powell, Wyo., which is about 75 miles from the highway. They used to have chain retail, until the economy went downhill and the population dwindled to 10,000. So rather than driving 75 miles to get to the closest Wal-Mart (WMT), the town essentially started its own store. It's not a co-op—it's a for-profit department store called The Merc. It opened up a few years ago, and has evolved into a successful model of community-run retail that a lot of other communities around the country are striving to emulate.

What will happen if people don't support independent retailers?

Hosein: We found out that independent stores provide an incredible level of retail diversity that corporate chains just don't. When Wal-Mart comes in and is so dominant and powerful that they can put a lot of smaller retailers out of business, they're also carrying a certain type of product, book, or CD that suits its mass-produced policies or personal ideology and philosophy. That limits the civic discourse in a democracy. A lot of people believe that if you don't have retail diversity, the health of the democracy is threatened.

Hughes: Many times, department stores give to charity, but they're not engaging on that local level. I can't tell you how many independent business owners told us stories about how the same person will come by every day, and the owner will give them a cup of coffee and a couple of dollars in exchange for washing the windows or something. Communities lose that when the retail sector is dominated by big boxes.

How should small businesses and entrepreneurs view growth?

Hosein: I think it's a big paradox that the three corporations we decided to focus on—Borders (BGP), Starbucks, and Wal-Mart—were all originally mom-and-pops, and their vision was obviously far greater than being a sustainable small business in their town, and I commend that. But not everyone needs to go for 10,000% growth over five years, especially if they're not a publicly traded company.

What are the best ways for small businesses to promote community cohesiveness?

Hosein: There are two ways that communities have tried to address the issue. One is by organizing public campaigns to convince people to buy local. There has been a more coercive way, where towns have passed laws to keep big boxes out of their town. Independents need to be involved in city council meetings, to make sure they're not railroaded by corporate chains that are looking for tax handouts to come into their towns and take over retail space.

Hughes: There also seem to be more community-based organizations like Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (www.livingeconomies.org) and American Independent Business Alliance (www.amiba.net) that help communities fight the big boxes by giving them templates to follow.

Other than the things we talked about, what are some creative ways for independent retailers to stand out?

Hosein: There have been some studies that show independents in hardware can often outdo Home Depot (HD) in prices. I think it really comes down to communicating the message about the service they offer and the relationship they offer. For the most part, customers can get a better diversity in products at smaller stores. Independents just need to do a better job of communicating that.

What's good about the chains?

Hosein: Independent businesses sometimes rely on corporate chains. We didn't condemn corporate chains in our film. We met a lot of people who said they go to Sam's Club to buy cups, since Sysco (SYY) won't serve them because they're too small. There are relationships between independents and corporate chains that you can't deny.

We're more looking for the healthy balance where the corporate chains don't become the dominant institution or retailer in a town, because that really does kill the balance of what you need to have a thriving democracy.


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