Getting the Difference...

I planned for this, the very first post of 2014, to be a lot different that what it turned out to be. I've been working on a recipe for four weeks and it is nearly ready to publish... yet something happened that distracted me from my culinary fine-tunings: I got an e-mail through the shop from a customer, there's nothing new there, I get plenty of them every week with queries about ingredient substitution, product availability, suggestions and plenty of thank yous.

This particular e-mail was different. I am not publishing it and before you jump into conclusions, it wasn't a nasty one, in fact, it was a good e-mail: a rational, polite and well composed one, it was overall positive. The lady in question found our products 'extremely expensive' compared to the offering by the Asian shops and thought that although she liked what we were trying to do with Mexican Food and she understood we have to pay import duties and the lot, she felt we were really not competing.

The e-mail couldn't have come at a worse time: I was dealing with a silly swollen foot and with the prospect of having to bring down Christmas decorations before I was meant to go back to my full-time position and to the stressful days of having to juggle bill paying jobs and long evenings and weekends trying to get the business to a point were it allows one of us to go at least part-time on the venture. At first I was annoyed. Then I had a panicky few hours full of self doubt and gloomy prospects. Then I got angry and spent a few more hours going through the reasons why we price our offering the way we do it. Then I spent a few more hours thinking about ways to reduce our costs so we can compete. Then I got a headache (always happens after I pack too much stuff in my poor head) and then I went to bed feeling miserable. Needless to say I didn't answer the e-mail that day, or the day after. I just didn't have it in me, I was exhausted!

Today I sat down to answer that e-mail. I started with a thank you for her feedback (it is after all the only way businesses can improve) and then I tackled the fundamental issue of our pricing. I thought long and hard how to answer it; I had loads of very clever reasons to justify our prices vs. those of the competition... but the truth is, I really can't. It baffles me as to how they can sell products at those prices. Some of those products, although not same branding or quality as ours, are below what I pay for them myself and then it hit me. I suppose this is the way some of the independent Irish retailers and producers feel when they see multiples selling stuff for under production cost. Only then my head became completely clear and I was able to compose my thoughts.

When we set the shop, I had four main objectives: I wanted quality Mexican food ingredients (I know it sounds like a cliche but it isn't), I wanted people to know they were buying from us, Alan and Lily, not just from a website (online sales don't have to be impersonal), I wanted to have the best customer service I could provide (I can't stand bad service), and last but not least I wanted a constant supply of good Mexican food ingredients I could use myself! (a bit selfish, but I reckon it works well for customers too).

We sell brands that are good in Mexico, brands that I would buy myself; I rarely go for the commercial cheap brands unless it is absolutely impossible to get an alternative. I source my products as ethically as possible, I do not sell anything I wouldn't eat myself and if I can find an equivalent product made in Ireland, I buy it here; I pay taxes and since most of our offering is imported (with the exception of the Irish-Mex section), we made a commitment to use only Irish businesses for everything else: all our printing and design work is carried out in Ireland; the office and packaging supplies are sourced through Irish businesses; all the services we employ are Irish firms: accountancy firm, photography, courier, software design, branding, packing designs, insurance, hardware and equipment, etc. I suppose we feel it is important to support other Irish businesses to the best of our abilities.

This in many cases implies paying higher prices, for example, printing our business cards in Germany or the UK would costs us only a fraction of what we pay here, and yet we got them done in Ireland. Design and website building over the internet using subcontracted firms abroad is way cheaper than employing an Irish design company to do it, yet we did, two of them actually, one for the shop and one for the blog. We economise as much as possible, we recycle packing other businesses would have to pay to get rid off, we have no marketing budget, we work long and hard hours and in all truth and honesty, it is very hard, half the time I'm not sure how we make it work. I suppose it is because we love what we do and we are passionate about it. People think we are completely mad by approaching business this way, and yet, deep in my heart, I know it is the right thing to do. I feel good about myself and about my business.

Of course, doing business this way in a price sensitive economy is a real challenge. How do we compete with the economies of scale of bigger businesses? How do we compete with the multiples who are jumping on the band wagon of Mexican Food stocking brands that give Mexican food a bad name? How do we compete with some restaurants selling excess ingredients at cost price? with people bringing suitcases full of ingredients directly from the USA or Mexico? How do we compete with all this and still find the time to explain to people that wheat and corn tortillas are not the same and that the ingredients in the back of our 454 gram bag of tortilla chips are three items while some of the way smaller bags sold in the multiples have twice as many?! Those who buy our tortilla chips never go back, there is a huge difference in flavour (and size as well!).

And then it dawned on me: I don't have to! Surely I'll be really sad to see people buying somewhere else, but we all have a choice. Do I explain to a potential customer that spending several hours every day answering queries on how to use ingredients, recommending or giving tested recipes out and developing new ones has a cost? Do I tell people that there is a cost and flavour difference between a tortilla that holds for 12 months and one that holds for only 3? Between one made with 100% corn and one that's made with 27% corn and 73% wheat? 

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this lady and her e-mail. She made me realise why I am in business and she reminded me of the day to day struggle many other small businesses have endured for the past 3 or 4 years. Our economy is turning, or so 'experts' say, well I'm going to hang on in there and like Alan says 'keep doing what we do well'; why am I more expensive than the Asian shops? because I am not an Asian shop!!  We run a highly specialised Mexican Food ingredients' shop, with access to my Mexican food expertise, including phone, e-mail and the ocasional blog advise (I promise you I'm not normally this cocky), we give the best damn customer service we can, we deal with integrity, honesty and respect, we support other Irish businesses and contribute to the Irish economy and we care about the source of our products. 

I'm in business to make it work, Fallon & Byrne and Avoca are hugely successful retailers that stuck to their guns and are thriving in difficult times, why couldn't we? We're going to keep growing until one day we can avail of all the economies of scale bigger businesses do, and we promise that when we do, we'll share that reward with you in the form of lower prices. To all our lovely customers and friends who have supported us for the last two years, THANK YOU. Thank you for getting the difference. Thank you for supporting Irish businesses and thank you for shopping with us.