I live and work in the (relatively) small town of Eugene, Oregon. This is a town where supporting local merchants is taken very seriously and where the local Saturday farmers’ market is always crowded.

I very much enjoy supporting local merchants and do so whenever I have the option. Buying local has many benefits including lowering our carbon footprint, supporting the local economy, and engaging more in the community. But this blog post isn’t about buying local, it’s about marketing a local business.

In the spirit of shopping with local businesses, I choose to have my family’s prescriptions filled at a pharmacy owned by a local family. At the counter of this local pharmacy, they have a sign imploring their customers to keep their business with local companies rather than taking their business across the street to the pharmacy in Safeway, the national supermarket and pharmacy chain. Seeing this sign invoked feelings of sympathy for the local owners of this business. I felt like I was doing my part by shopping locally. David versus Goliath in the local business world and I was helping.

But here’s where things went wrong. This local pharmacy did not treat me like a local. With two small children, I inevitably was in the pharmacy more than I would have liked, but I was never recognized. I was always treated like I was a new customer, not a repeat customer. My prescriptions were never ready on time. The list of complaints grew fairly long and I won’t bore you with them all here.

Eventually I decided to take my business to the pharmacy at Safeway, across the street from the locally owned pharmacy. The difference was remarkable. The pharmacists and technicians were amazingly friendly. Within three visits, they recognized me. I started to experience things like this: Walking up to the pharmacy, the pharmacist said, “I saw you coming down the aisle and got your prescription ready for you.” This NEVER happened at the locally owned pharmacy. The pharmacists often ask about my kids. They treat me like they are working in a small, local business, not in the back of Safeway supermarket.

The thing that is amazing about this is that Safeway certainly does not have a marketing strategy that instructs pharmacists to treat their customers like locals. I’m certain that the pharmacy in this Safeway is an anomaly. My bet is that these pharmacists in this Safeway aren’t even competing with the local pharmacy. They’re just trying to do their job well.

I would rather shop locally, but local businesses need to do more than just beg for business. They need to truly act like local businesses. They need to do things better or differently than the big company moving in next door. They need to stand out with great product, great customer service, or some other core differentiator. Local businesses need to not just talk the talk, they need to walk the walk.

AvatarNoah Parsons

Noah is currently the COO at Palo Alto Software, makers of the online business plan app LivePlan. You can follow Noah on Twitter.