Sunday, December 6, 2015

Small Business Casualties: Is One-Stop Shopping Killing Us?

I first wrote a rough draft of this back in 2009 as i started to see the attraction the larger stores held for consumers. Worried that the independents may be fading in popularity by seeing a shift towards the “get it all under one roof” mentality, it appeared there were changes ahead for our small businesses. And I'd venture to say that it's become more than just how people spend; I think it's become a mind set. Prior to the early 1990's I had never set foot in a Walmart. I know, I know. Sheltered east coaster I guess, but when we traveled we went to places that were all about the small towns and where variety made up the local landscape. Somehow, if the giants were present I managed to miss them until they arrived in Virginia, probably around 92' or '93.

Before Walmart you may have needed to go to several different stores for various items. I realize by today's standards of one stop shopping that behavior seems terribly time consuming and wasteful, but was it really THAT bad? I don't recall being so horribly stressed out by needing to visit a small hardware store, locally-owned pet supply shop and grocery as a huge black hole in my life. Matter of fact, it offered variety and experiences, especially when visiting familiar and favorite stores. But then along came the mega-chains....suddenly size mattered and the larger the building the better your shopping experience would be....right? Dad could wander off to the electronics department; the kids were loading up on McDonald's and at the arcade; and everyone was happy. No squealing about how long this was taking, or need to rush, because there was no need to go anywhere else. Our world had begun to shrink into one vast place and we LOVED that. Run the car in the back side of the building for tires and service, visit the cell phone kiosk, try on eyeglasses, get the bank stuff done....seriously. It was ALL there.

Is that when our thinking began shrinking too? Suddenly we couldn't be bothered with Mr. Wells down at the local hardware shop because that was too much trouble. Never mind that he'd faithfully been on duty for 37 years, and his father before that, dispensing advice, and helping with projects; it was another stop and we just couldn't manage that anymore. It was easier to pick up what was needed at either Walmart or the accompanying big box twin that it was so often paired with, Home Depot. Carol, who owned the pet supply for the last 12 years knew everything about animal foods and what to feed for just about every kind of situation. She knew your pets and kids and was always a fun visit, until the day you realized that bags of dog food were a little cheaper at Walmart and you were already there. So you didn't need Carol anymore and you cut that bit of personal interaction with a real person out of your life....followed by the local grocery store, gift shop and more. But as you peeled off those layers, didn't you start to miss something?

Did big box buying rise in popularity due to the nature of it's “built-in babysitter” feature? Because perhaps it's not just about "the time saved" by visiting one place. The combination of low prices, multiple services and perhaps a way to entertain the whole family for an afternoon could have been what sold people on it. But what if we let go of the other choices we had, and as they fade and close we end up with only this option? Do we want our only decision to be between walmart and perhaps one or two other giants? I realize that's being overly dramatic but what if they were to raise prices significantly once they have killed off much of the competition? I'm not sure I like the idea of having to line up like a herd of cattle at the same place as everyone else - I mean, you've seen what Black Friday looks like, when the first few stores open their doors early in the morning and hundreds of people are anxiously waiting. I don't "do" stampedes and prefer to spend where I choose, for reasons that range from knowing the owner to supporting someone's commitment to quality.

Choices may be fading and not as plentiful as in years past, but here we still have a number of independents that I love, use and value. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the fact we run to several small stores isn't threatening our quality of life. After all, it's the chance to choose; a right we all have. And more importantly, it's a privilege we could lose in the very near future.

Live Local USA | A Voice for Small Business

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