Monday, May 7, 2007

Small is Beautiful: Conversation with Glenn Bourland

Glenn Bourland, owner of Ann Arbor's By the Pound, says business is good. I met with him today to get his take on the current economic conditions in Ann Arbor and Michigan.

The store, celebrating its 25th year of operation, has been in Bourland's ownership for the last 12 years. Offering bulk foods, ethnic specialty foods and gourmet products, the international inventory ranges from tea and coffee to nuts and grains, spices and candies. Located in South Main Market, the store enjoys sustained business from a regular and loyal clientele. Bourland attributes his steady business success to his focus on products that are staples in the kitchen. "I sell things that people will buy even if their discretionary income is lower. Some of the products are specialty items, but none of them are very expensive," Bourland shared. Even in what most believe is a very weak economy, By the Pound is doing well.

Contrary to conventional business wisdom, Bourland didn't have a business plan when he pitched into running the store 12 years ago. But his instincts have proven sound and the store is thriving. His approach to running the place is very common sense. I asked Bourland for any insights he had to share with people contemplating starting a new business. "It takes a lot of work and thinking outside the box. You need to keep overhead low. I don't hire out anything I can do myself. I do my own bookkeeping, taxes, payroll, ordering, inventory, and maintenance,"Bourland said. He also mans the cash register much of the time. And that is where easy conversation cultivates longterm customer relationships.

Bourland considers customer service central to the success of his small business. "I like to talk with people. I'm not Kroger or Busch's, so the difference I offer is friendly customer service. I want to shop somewhere I enjoy going even if it is a little more expensive." And this is clearly the sort of welcoming environment Bourland fosters in his store.

In a word of caution Bourland said,"I remember reading once that if somebody likes your store they'll tell seven people, but if they don't like it, they'll tell twenty two."

Bourland's strategy is instinctive; he listens to customers and stocks what people want. He pays attention to competition and tries to keep a distinctive and high quality set of products. And he prices products carefully to ensure continued profits.

In January, a European deli called Copernicus opened next door. Bourland says business has improved with the arrival of this new neighbor. Over the years, different stores have come and gone in South Main Market. And those ups and downs have had an impact on By the Pound. Bourland has had to adjust product selections and inventory during those changes at South Main Market. For now, though, a healthy synergy is stimulating business among Bear Claw Coffee, Copernicus, By the Pound, Brazamerica, and Back Alley Gourmet.

Perhaps the effort to develop high density residential real estate downtown will add to this promising synergy. Time will tell.