Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

This has been increasingly evident thing with local and small-chain stores. But is it a good thing? (Credit: Dennis E. Powell)

When There's Nothing but Online and Chain Stores, We'll All Be Unhappy

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 12:18 PM

Not long ago, one of the gas lines on a piece of yard equipment here broke right where it connected to the plastic gas tank, causing gasoline to leak all over the place and rendering the thing unusable.

No big deal, I thought. There is a local hardware store here that is of the traditional variety. You can go in and describe the problem, or the project you’re working on, and they’ll have the parts you need. So I packed up the machine — it’s a Troy-Bilt 4-stroke string trimmer — and took it to the store, which would surely have replacement gas line and the little connector for the gas tank.

Alas. That wonderful old hardware store, which had everything you might need, was no more. I’d hoped to buy just the parts I needed from a knowledgeable person locally, but that was no longer possible.

Several months ago, it turns out, under the pressures of the pandemic, this great independent store got bought by a regional chain. “Did you want to leave it with us?” the guy there asked. No, I said, I need some tubing and a fitting. He appeared puzzled. Then he went to a computer terminal and typed in some things. “I can get you a new gas tank for \$35,” he said.

In that I did not need a new gas tank, I thanked him and left. Then I went home and found the replacement fitting and tubing (along with a new carburetor, all the gaskets, a replacement primer bulb, and several other maintenance parts) on eBay for \$15. It arrived in four days. Whereupon I fixed the machine.

Similarly, I recently needed a hole punch. The rubber covering of the camera plate on my venerable Leitz Tiltall tripod had gotten so chewed up over 40 years of use that it needed to be replaced. I had suitable sticky-back rubber, made to repair the soles of shoes. But I needed to punch a hole where the tripod screw sticks through. No big deal, I thought, and one day as I passed my local Lowe’s store, I stopped in to pick up a quarter-inch hole punch.

After flagging down an employee, I asked where the hole punches were. His expression was the same as if I’d asked what Martians like to eat. He drew his cellular telephone and started some application that I think was a Lowe’s catalog and perhaps store map. Then, over the next few minutes, he took me around and showed me a variety of things that aren’t hole punches: Pin pinches, nail sets, drill bits. If there are hole punches at Lowe’s, they remain unseen by me and unknown by at least one Lowe’s employee. Amazon knew what hole punches are, and sold me a set in most useful sizes, made in China, for \$20. My tripod now has a comfortable camera plate; I have the last hole punches I’ll ever need. And Lowe’s lost a sale. That old local hardware store would have had the punch I sought, for a few dollars..

Even before the pandemic’s terrible effect on local retailers throughout the land and much of the rest of the world, many of us liked, in the words of chambers of commerce, to “buy local.” Yes, things you purchase from physical stores that you actually visit are likely to be more expensive than their online equivalents. What do you get for that extra money?

Well, there’s a degree of speed. You can walk into a store and buy what you want and leave with it.

You can inspect the item to make sure that it is in proper condition, functioning, and what you think you’re buying.

You can support your neighbors and your local community by shopping locally whenever it’s possible.

You can enjoy good service. The people in independent local stores — as opposed to chains — act as if they feel responsible for providing service resulting in a satisfied customer.

And there’s advice. Usually one can explain what he is looking for and there’s someone there to steer him in the right direction, to aid in making him a happy customer. In the case of the hardware store, that meant talking with one or more grizzled old guys whose knowledge included experience, time spent learning the tricks of the trade. This alone was enough to tip the scales, in my estimation.

We had to do without these things for many months, which gave an unneeded boost to online retailers. Local businesses suffered, and many of them closed. Others were subsumed by bigger companies. Our habits changed. The notion of “going shopping” as a recreational activity got forcibly replaced by other more constrained activities, not the least of which was going shopping online. (That can lead to unconstrained, impulse purchases — clicking the “order now” button is always easier than canceling an order, where cancellation is possible at all, as it pretty much isn’t on places like eBay or, Heaven help us, the outlets in China.)

Then there’s grocery shopping.

Perhaps where you live, as here, there is a practice in the big-chain grocery stores to rearrange everything from time to time. You have the place memorized and can pop in and out efficiently, but then the store reshuffles the products and you spend twice as much time doing the same amount of shopping. I do not know why this is done. My suspicion is that there is some marketing study someplace that says if you completely confuse your customers every so often, they’ll remain in the store longer. Well … yeah. But will they buy more?

I wonder. I know I don’t, because I’m disinclined to do more than necessary business with a company that has decided to anger me for no good reason. Hey, marketing folks: They’ll stay even longer if you decategorize everything and put the canned peas next to the dish soap next to the apples. Longer still if you make new changes each day, so that nothing is where it was yesterday. Just don’t be surprised if people take their custom elsewhere. There was — the pandemic killed it and, please God, may it stay dead — a thing called “destination weddings,” where the bride and groom force you to take a distant vacation if you’re to attend the nuptials. That was bad enough. Destination grocery shopping, let us hope, will never catch on. And at some point fed-up people will decide to get their groceries, too, online.

Despite the trends, the advantages and strengths of local independent retail ought to be apparent to its practitioners and customers. Independent merchants know this, I hope. Their survival depends on it.

Of course, we can and should do our part. Have you ever gone to a local store to learn about, see, maybe have explained to you an item you’re considering, only to go somewhere else or perhaps online to actually make the purchase? That might be clever in the short term, but at some point if enough people engage in the practice that local store won’t be there anymore. We cannot expect merchants to behave honorably if we’re unwilling to be honorable in our dealings with them. It’s obvious. But more and more, acceptable actions are governed more by what we can get away with than what we should do.

Sometimes it’s good to pay extra to buy from a store that provides service and, who knows, even stands behind its products. Because then it might just stick around.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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