The Indie Ecosystem

Earlier this year, I read about a concept which really tickled my pickle: the disloyalty card. A group of independent coffeehouses in Washington, DC came up with the idea of creating a card that encouraged patrons to try a selection of independent coffeehouses. Collect them all, as it were, and you get a free drink.

At first glance, this might seem bizarre. Why would coffeehouses want to encourage people to go to the competition? Why would you actually reward them for drifting from coffeehouse to coffeehouse instead of becoming loyal to a neighbourhood local? But if you delve a little deeper, it’s actually rather brilliant, because it recognises indies as an ecosystem, rather than as businesses that need to be in direct competition with each other.

The core message of the disloyalty card is that the coffeehouses involved want people to get their coffee at indie shops. While of course each shop would love it if customers picked them as their local, the more important thing is that customers pick an indie shop as their local. This creates unity for shops that might otherwise be struggling in tension with each other, and the solidarity allows shops to survive when they might otherwise be crushed by chain competitors who can just keep rolling out new locations and winning people over with familiar brand names and experiences.

With the disloyalty card, people have an opportunity to learn about shops they might not otherwise find. I often notice when I’m traveling with friends that they’ll head to the closest Starbucks they can find when they want beverages, because they don’t want to search for an indie coffeeshop, or they’re worried about the consistency and quality of service. For them, the known quantity appeals. For me, conversely, the discovery of a new tea shop appeals — and a disloyalty card would help me locate one in a new neighbourhood, whether I was there for the day, or moving, or visiting friends.

If I liked a tea shop, I might well go back, and I’d certainly recommend it to friends. That tea shop, ergo, would have won, even if I had moved on to other tea shops that are more along my usual routes. That’s business it captured that would not have otherwise appeared, and people I steered through its doors who will check it out instead of going to Starbucks or Tullys or whatever chain is located in the same neighbourhood.

By participating in the disloyalty card programme, the store would have enriched its customer base. Which is why the whole scheme is so brilliant, because it speaks to a larger rethinking of capitalism: how about businesses not be in direct competition with each other? How about businesses filling a similar role in society cooperate and create an ecosystem of similar businesses? How about two businesses serving a similar function on opposite ends of town team up to make customers aware of each other, knowing that they’re not going to lose from the proposition, and they certainly could stand to gain a lot?

The late-stage capitalism we’re enduring as a society encourages fierce competition, trampling over other businesses, and looking out for number one. Yet, in a growing number of US cities, independent businesses are starting to break free of that mold, and to focus not on trapping all the customers for themselves, but on keeping customers within the locally-owned and independent ecosystem. A clothing store will recommend a competitor, for example, if customers are having trouble finding what they want or need. Likewise, a waitress at a restaurant might have suggestions for visitors looking for recommendations in the area — even if she’s sending business away from her own employers, the staff at other restaurants are making recommendations steering customers towards her business, and everyone wins.

I favour this collaborative approach to doing business, rather than an aggressive winner take all mode, and it’s pleasing in particular to see indies supporting each other. This has long been a tradition in the world of independent book stores, who were among the first to see the writing on the wall back when Am*zon started getting big. They knew that divided, they would fall, probably extremely quickly, and that they needed both a business model providing something that the bookselling giant wouldn’t, and a solidarity model encouraging people to shop independent even if they didn’t shop at a specific bookstore.

Organisations like the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association created a world in which indies grew more aware of each other, supported each other, and met up at conferences to exchange tips, tricks, and contact information. I know that I can walk into my local independent bookstore and ask them for advice on other NCIBA members in cities I might be traveling to, as well as on booksellers around the country and the world — which is a pretty neat feat. It means that I can keep my money in the hands of independent and locally-owned businesses no matter where I go, all thanks to the facilitation of a network of such businesses who recognise the merits in working together.

Disloyalty cards are a logical iteration in the world of indie solidarity, and I’m hoping the concept spreads to other cities and other industries. I for one wouldn’t mind a pad thai disloyalty card, or, for that matter, a tea card that would make me aware of tea houses I haven’t even heard of yet, but obviously need to visit.