Living in a New World*

Global Small BusinessThe world, and people’s thinking, has arguably gotten a lot more global in the last years, especially with the advent of the Internet. We’ve seen it in innumerable ways, across society. One post could never really do justice to the increasingly global nature of the way we think. So for today, I thought (I hope!) it might be interesting to look at a bit of the way this process has affected business, and how it plays out in crime fiction.

As the world has gotten smaller, many businesses that were previously local or regional have become international. One of them is Starbucks. It started as a local Seattle company but it’s hardly local now. You may say that part of Starbucks’ growth is smart marketing. But the company has also had a global perspective. And as you know, Starbucks is just about everywhere. There are dozens of crime-fictional references to the company, too. One I like very much is in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, which concerns the murder of popular radio personality Kevin Brace. At one point, the police take an interest in one of Brace’s colleagues Donald Dundas. On hearing that he often starts his day in a local coffee shop, the police try to guess which one. They hear some of Dundas’ colleagues talk of a trip to ‘Four Bucks’ to get coffee, but it turns out Dundas has chosen a smaller, independent shop.

It’s not just Starbucks either, of course. McDonald’s has also become a global contender, and of course, it features in a lot of different crime novels. For instance, there’s a reference to the company in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. In one plot thread of that novel, sometime-attorney Jack Irish and some of his friends/colleagues are on their way to a horse race in which they’ve got some money invested. Along the way they stop at a ‘Maccas.’ As I say, that’s just one of many, many references to the company that pop up worldwide.

Tesco is another company that’s ‘gone global.’ Based in the UK, it has branches in several different countries now. There’s an interesting Tesco scene in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot thread of that novel, self-styled medium Ava Garrett has suddenly died of what turns out to be poison. DCI Tom Barnaby and his team connect this death to the earlier death of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley. Ava’s daughter Karen is temporarily being looked after by nineteen-year-old Roy Priest, who lodges with the Garretts. Roy is a product of the government’s child welfare system, and wants more than anything to spare Karen his fate. So he looks after her as well as a misfit nineteen-year-old can. At one point, he sees that she needs new clothes and other things. So he takes her on a shopping trip to Tesco. Karen is awestruck by everything that’s sold there, and delighted to have some new things all her own.

As you’ll know, not all global ventures have been successful for companies. Thanks to an interesting comment exchange with Australian author Geoffrey McGeachin, I learned that Starbucks pulled out of Australia. Tesco’s attempt to gain a foothold in the US market was also unsuccessful.

So, does this global expansion of companies and their culture mean that the small independent local or personal business is doomed? People don’t agree on this question, but I don’t think so. The advent of the Internet and global reach has meant that small businesses and individuals can market themselves to an international audience. Erm – you’re visiting my blog, aren’t you? And if you don’t live near me, this is just one example…

We certainly see that in crime fiction too. In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, for instance, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, whose living comes from a very successful and lucrative blog called Malin’s Table. Its focus is sustainable food, recipes and the like. She and her husband Henrik Kjellander also have another source of income. They plan to be away from their home on the Swedish island of Fårö for two months, and have arranged to sub-let their home. For this purpose, they use a company that matches available homes with people who’d like to have a temporary tenancy in them. The company itself is a small business, but because of the Internet, it has a global reach. If you’ve ever booked a B&B online, you know the kind of reach I mean. When the family returns from their trip, they find their home in terrible condition. At first they think it’s a case of slipshod, inconsiderate tenants. But then, other things happen that make it clear that someone has targeted the family. Fredrik Bronan and his police team investigate, and they’ll have to act as quickly as they can to find out who would want to hurt the family and why, before something tragic happens.

Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski may not be the most technologically savvy character in fiction. But he certainly understands the value of promoting a small business globally. He and his wife Rosie own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They do spend time at the lodge, but their home is in the small town of Crooked Lake, south of the lodge. Stuart Lake Lodge does get some local trade. But a great deal of the company’s business comes from international visitors. Bart has arrangements with travel agents in several places, and, of course, a toll-free number, so that the lodge’s reach is much larger than you might think.

Smaller, independent businesses also rely on simply doing things better, if I may put it that way. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne-based baker who prides herself on making ‘real’ breads, rolls and other baked goods. She uses fresh ingredients and markets locally. When a large competitor opens one of its franchises on the same street where Chapman has her bakery, she faces stiff competition. Her employee and apprentice baker Jason Wallace does some reconnaissance at the new bakery and reports that the bread’s not made nearly as well. Still, the new place does attract a lot of trade – until ergot is found in some local breads, and poisons some customers. Now Chapman faces the closure of her own bakery unless the source of the ergot is found.

So, can small, independent businesses compete against the behemoths? They’re certainly not doomed to failure. Of course, a lot depends on the particular business and market; and each industry is different. But the Internet has made it possible for even one-person businesses to ‘go global.’

ps. The ‘photo is an example of a small business with a global reach. This is a case of very nice wine from Peju, in California’s Napa region. It’s not by any means a huge winery, but no matter where you live, you can connect with Peju and see what you think of their wine.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Machines (or, ‘Back to Humans’).


Filed under Caroline Graham, Geoffrey McGeachin, Håkan Östlundh, Kerry Greenwood, Nelson Brunanski, Peter Temple, Robert Rotenberg

22 responses to “Living in a New World*

  1. Very interesting topic, Margot, and you raise some great questions. I see a lot of new businesses start up around here but a lots go under also. The owners have to have patience, and a stick-to-it mentality, and luck, I guess. We got a new independent book store but it went under very quickly. We have a great independent bookstore that has been around since I have been in Santa Barbara (35 years) but we don’t even have any of the big national bookstores anymore… Not sure why they cannot survive in this area.

    Several of the authors that you mentioned I have not read and I want to. Soon I hope. Carolyn Graham and Peter Temple are the ones I have read, although only one book so far by Temple.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tracy. I think you’re absolutely right that for new businesses, especially small businesses, there are a lot of risks. The owner has to have confidence, perseverance, and flexibility. And I really do think it makes sense to create a solid online marketing plan as well. I’m sorry to hear the indie book shop went under. I love those independent stores and it always hurts to see one go.

  2. Absolutely. Just watch one episode of Shark Tank and you’ll see many thriving online businesses. Great topic, Margot!

  3. In John Gaspard’s ‘Eli Marks’ series, Eli’s uncle owns a magic shop where Eli helps out when he’s not performing his magic act himself. They are both respected stage magicians so they do get local custom, but the bulk of their business is now done online, sending tricks all around the world. I guess that’s the way for small businesses to do it these days. I reckon the appeal of the huge store and chains might have peaked – there seems to be a mood for more variety. And many small businesses have recognised that they need to do things differently to get customers through the door. Lots of independent bookshops seem to host bookclubs and events or have cafes attached now, for example.

    • Oh, I’ve been wanting to try that series, FictionFan. I hear good things about it, and Marks sounds like an interesting protagonist. The way they sell really is the way the world is moving. A lot of small businesses are going in the online direction and doing much better for it. Interesting too as you say that some of the really big businesses aren’t doing as well. McDonalds, for instance, has closed several of its US franchises, and is still (or so I hear) losing money. At the same time, small companies know that they can’t coast. They need to give people a reason to ‘click here’ or visit, and it’s not always easy. It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

  4. Kathy D.

    I grieve over lost independent bookstores in my city, especially the one that was about 10 blocks from my building. Even some of the big chains have closed down stores nearby. One branch used to be a block from my house and I’d go over, look at books and have tea and a biscuit — and shop for gifts.

    • I hate it too when independent bookshops close, Kathy. There aren’t enough of them, I don’t think. And right now, there’s only one branch of a big chain near where I live. As you say those places are great for browsing, having a cup of tea or coffee and shopping. The trouble is that visits there are always dangerous to my TBR…

  5. Col

    Interesting how Amazon going global has impacted on book buying and publishing, which affects both readers and writers. Just how many years ago was it that they weren’t the massive influence they are now?

    • Good point, Col. They’ve only been around for a little over twenty years, and now they are omnipresent – a genuine global force. But at the same time, they’ve enabled lots of small businesses (including authors who self-publish) to get into the market. It’s an interesting case – it really is.

  6. Margot, the advent of global food chains in India has put many local and traditional Indian restaurants and eateries out of business, I think, partly because the latter feels selling out is more lucrative than continuing in the food business. Every local restaurant is now replaced either by MacDonald, KFC, Domino’s or Burger King. People like me still go to the ones still in business, especially the popular South Indian eateries famous for their low-fat and wholesome snacks. Elsewhere, I think, non-food global chains like Amazon are doing well and I’d love it if Walmart were allowed to do business in India hundred per cent. The food business is a very good setting for a murder mystery.

    • Prashant – It’s a shame when a community loses its unique restaurants and other eateries.I suppose it’s my culture, but I think it’s a good thing for the consumer to have choices. I’m glad you still go to the ones that are open in your area. At the same time, there are good things about the huge, global companies too in terms of what they can offer. A big company saves on its own costs, so it can offer lower prices to consumers; that’s one thing Walmart does. Perhaps a balance is best.

  7. Small business is tricky, for sure. I think the internet has opened a lot of possibilities up, but I know some impediments have been created for small business, too (individual state taxing being one of them).

    • That’s true, Elizabeth. Small businesses have to deal with taxing, and owners have other challenges too. At the same time, it’s now possible to have a business that can fit into a home office, and sell to a global market. It’s a new world out there for us all, I suppose.

  8. Your knowledge of crime fiction is truly inexhaustible, Margo!
    This post set me thinking about Emma Lathen and the business setting of so many of her books. One of my favourites is Murder to Go (1972), which involves a takeaway chicken franchise, which is threatened when customers are poisoned. It’s not a global business as it might be today, but it does stretch across the USA.

    • Thank you, Christine *blush.* And I am glad you mentioned Murder to Go. I think it’s a terrific entry into the series, and it certainly does show how businesses can start local (e.g. one chicken restaurant) and spread.

  9. I don’t know how you do it Margot – I’m sure I’ve read lots of books that deal with this subject but can’t think of a single one! I have to say the rise of the internet has made living on a small island an awful lot easier in that we are now able to get a range of goods whereas previously if a local shop didn’t stock something, we couldn’t get it. Life is very different now!

    • It sure is, Cleo. As you know better than I, when you live on a small island (or for the matter of that, somewhere very rural), it’s hard to get easy access to a lot of things. The Internet has changed all of that. It’s now possible to get nearly anything you might need. It makes me wonder what local shops do in cases like that, to ensure that they can keep going. It’s one of the many changes online shopping has brought.

  10. What a great posting! You’ve given me so much to consider.
    BTW, Crimes in the Library has been reactivated, and I look forward to your visits and comments.

  11. I can see all kinds of opportunities for crime fiction pitting small businesses against large conglomerates. Think of the small family farm that’s trying to survive in a world of huge agricultural industries that can operate more efficiently because of consolidation. I’m sure the “urge to kill” surfaces on both sides from time to time.

    • Oh, I’m sure it does, Pat. And you’re absolutely right about agribusiness. I’ve known several people who owned family farms. Some depended on them for most of their income; others didn’t. Either way though, they certainly had to compete with the big players, and it was difficult. Lots of good possibilities there…

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