Making a Statement With Little Box Retailers

I do several keyword searches every day to see what might be in the news or on the blogs of interest to me and to Crane. Over the holidays, I took a few days off and, as bad luck would have it, I missed seeing one of the best pieces I’ve ever read about independent retailing. The column below was written by Sydne Didier, owner of Essentials, which has two Little Box Retail locations in Western Massachusetts.

I feel badly about not being able to repost this before the holidays, but when an article is this good, later is much better than never:

I admit it. I went to the mall today.

Yup. Small, local, independent retailer that I am, I went to the mall. And not even a particularly good mall. Instead, it was the mediocre one about a half-hour from my house. Sick curiosity? Maybe.

And folks, even the lousy mall was JAMMED. Parking lot crowded, people with strollers and bags walking from American Eagle to Build-A-Bear to Macy’s to Toys ‘R Us to A.C. Moore.

At the Gap, the entire store was 30% off.

At Ann Taylor Loft? 40%.

At The Body Shop, everything you could fit in a bag was 50% off if you bought the bag for $5.

At Macy’s, the Men’s section had discounts between 30-70% off, with and overwhelming amount of product piled everywhere.

You know what I realized? I can’t compete with this.

I have a great store, great staff, and great stuff, but I can’t compete.

I can’t do what these stores are doing, in any way. And let me explain some of the reasons why. (And believe me, there are plenty more but I’ll spare you an endless list.)

I can’t compete because I pay rent each month with little negotiating power because I have just two stores, in small towns where the landlords are independent business people as well. I pay my own maintenance for the space, and last month, was hit by an almost $600 bill to fix my heat. Then there’s that pesky $150 for fixing our computers, the hot water heater last year, and oh yeah, that new rug a few years before that.

I can’t compete because in the last year, more and more of our vendors have required that all of their accounts pay for all product up front. This might be hard to understand but what it means is that everything my customers consider buying for Christmas? I’ve already paid for it. And now, it’s about making my money back because like most retailers, there’s debt involved in paying in advance. And getting business credit from either a bank or a credit card? Forget about that.

I can’t compete because I want to pay my employees the best possible wage I can. It’s never enough, given all they do for you and for me, but it’s what I can afford right now. (Let’s not even talk about the fact that several years ago, I used to be able to provide my employees with health insurance but had to stop when rates went up, and then up again, and then up even more.)

I can’t compete because we don’t have a parking lot and people don’t walk in town when the weather is bad.

I can’t compete because those stores at the mall make money no matter what. Even when The Gap sells things at 30% off or more, they are still making a profit. Me? If I do that? I’m barely covering my costs, and that’s not even mentioning my own paycheck which gets smaller and smaller with each passing year.

I can’t compete because right now is about making some money to tide us over during the slow months of January, February, March, April or until whenever the snow decides to melt.

I can’t compete because even though I have small internet sites, I am not Amazon, or Zappos, the online equivalent of the shopping mall.

There are plenty more reasons I could list here, but really, I think it’s more important to tell you where you come in. It’s about making a decision regarding the kind of place you want to live and the kind of shopping you want to be able to do. The less you support small, independent businesses, the less we can compete, and in my opinion, the more we all lose.

Let me tell you what I didn’t see at the mall: things I hadn’t seen before, those unique things I cherish at my own store.

At the mall, people rifled through piles of the same thin fleece blanket they could get at any number of stores there, (But it was so cheap!), or pawed thin plaid scarfs that weren’t nice enough to warrant their $10. I didn’t see people acting genuinely excited about the special, just-right item they’d found for their sister, or mother, or friend.

At the mall, I didn’t see things like the young woman who came into Essentials yesterday looking for a gift for her mother, and who was clearly struggling with it. We talked, and within a few minutes, had decided upon custom stationery from Crane & Co., which was printed for her within the hour. When she left, she was thrilled, and confident in her choice. And we felt good too.

I didn’t see products made by small vendors who are doing things that are truly unique. Or products made by local artisans. Or anything that wasn’t made in a factory, made in small numbers rather than hundreds or thousands.

At the mall, I saw quantity, but not as much carefully curated quality.

I didn’t see anyone I knew, or who knew me and could comment on how much my son had grown, or ask how my mom liked the necklace I had gotten her for her birthday. I didn’t see anyone who knew what dress size I am, or could ask about our last vacation. I didn’t see community.

At the mall, I didn’t see neighbors, or a spot I wanted to stop for coffee as a break from my shopping, or a bakery where I could buy a loaf of bread for dinner tonight.

We all have choices to make with our shopping dollars, and admittedly, those choices are tougher these days. There are fewer of those dollars to go around, and I realize that.

I’m not talking about people coming and spending big bucks at Essentials. I’m talking about making a statement with your dollars. Maybe buying less, spending a bit more per item, but buying locally.

It’s not just about the present you buy. It’s about what you’re getting with that. A vibrant community of people engaging with one another, knowing each other, and having a town that feels like a town, rather than a series of anonymous stores connected only by the building that encloses them.

So no, Essentials will not be able to offer you deep, deep discounts. If I could, I would. But if I do, Essentials will disappear, along with the other small retailers that are closing around the country.

And if that matters to you, you know what to do.


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