Do Brick and Mortar Stores Need to Die? Recollections of Past and Present

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K&B Drugs or Katz and Besthoff and McLeod’s in the Big Purple Building on the Airline in the days before eCommerce.

Imagine if K&B or McLeod’s still existed in 2104?

Have you ever really pondered about how shopping has changed?  Even the most rudimentary of historical observations can uncover some basic trends. The old time general store began to receive competition from more specialized boutiques. About the beginnings of the 20th century, these boutiques had to compete with department stores. A score or so later, the freedom of travel with the automobile saw “strip malls” pulling traffic from the old “Main Street.” By the 1960s, big box retailers began to emerge. Shortly after these retailers became anchor stores for large shopping centers and shopping malls. Superstores such as the new Walmarts ushered a new era of multiple types of goods sold under a single roof, and the smaller family owned businesses whether on Main Street, a strip mall, or with a small frontage in a shopping center or mall began to dwindle more rapidly in number. Before the 21st Century began, online retailing giants such as Amazon began to not just carve, but to cut out an entire portion of sales. Today, ecommerce is becoming the rule versus the exception. Traditional brick and mortar stores are closing left and right in a rapidity akin to toppling dominoes.

I’ll always have a fondness for the locally owned small business. The benefits from a truly mutual cooperation between proprietor and customer are rewards without price stickers. It’s one thing to ask for advice and a recommendation from a seller, and it is another when you have the utmost confidence in that suggestion offered. Outside of a farmers market, hopefully some automotive mechanic’s shop, and barber shop are there that many types of businesses with that type of reputation?

As an “old timer” born in the 1970s, I can remember being able to receive superior service from some of the brick and mortar chains or local megastores. That shocks many of today’s college students. K&B had that motto of Personally Yours, and the service rated to that standard. Costs on some items were higher than what you could find at a department store. Bread and milk, however, were often loss leaders and of course nothing beat the quality of the K&B ice cream made at their own ice cream plant. Other services such as in house photo processing rivaled that of specialized businesses. More importantly, you could always find a clerk or manager on the floor to provide assistance.

The K&B store manager was also involved in the local community. My Dad as manager had the authority to provide volume discounts and make special orders for community groups. I was in high school when my Dad volunteered me and some friends to deliver cases upon cases of Coke and Pepsi products one day. It was a memorable day for me since one delivery went to Bishop Stanley Joseph Ott and the other to the Reverend T.J. Jemison. Could a teenager meet two more involved men in their community?

K&B will always have a personal place in my heart, but there were similar businesses. How many remember the Big Purple Building on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge? Mr. Lloyd McLeod who stood behind everything he sold because if he stood in front, you couldn’t see it. Honestly, if you were buying a TV or any type of electronics, McLeod’s was the one store to shop. Impeccable service in both sales and repairs, and every customer treated like a friend of the family. My Dad and Mr. Lloyd were friends, but in reality both men treated all customers and salespeople as friends. What you had were two businessmen who strived for repeat customers and relied upon those customers to recommend their stores to friends.

Yep, those were the olden days.

I walked into the local Staples store today. I’m going to purchase some internal hard drives to place in USB 3 enclosures as an additional back up for some photos and video. It’s not an immediate need purchase, and I have been keeping an eye on prices for a few months.  Online I came across two really good deals. One was from B&H Photo which has a retail outlet up in New York and does a lot of online business. The other was from Fry’s, a retailer with the majority of its brick and mortar stores on the West Coast but with its own online sales niche.

Staples, however, has a brick and mortar location within walking distance from where we live. Beautiful weather today here in MD, so my wife and I went out. Staples is a retailer who advertises a “Price Match Guarantee.”

“Staples will price match items sold by any retailer who sells products in both retail stores and online under the same brand; we will also match those that are sold and shipped by Amazon.com.”

The price matches requested were in the $25 range. While I waited for the clerk to bring the drives from the back, my wife found some discounted discontinued supplies we would need in the upcoming weeks along with an item on sale she intended to purchase for an upcoming presentation.

The clerk came out and stated that the manager would not honor the price match. I asked to speak with the manager to see if his decision applied to the B&H or Fry’s request.

It applied to both, and I quote from the manager “they are not my competitors as my competitors are within 5 miles from here like Target or Best Buy.”  I asked about the Staples website information, and he greeted me with a “manager’s discretion” response and walked off.

Truth be told, his decision is no skin off my nose. I can purchase the exact same items for the lesser cost and with free shipping. I just wanted to give a local retailer, even though it is a chain, my business.

Staples as a company has not delivered the best of news as of late with reports being that somewhere in the neighborhood of 225 locations will be closed by the end of 2015.

http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/06/news/companies/staples-store-closing/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/07/business/citing-online-sales-staples-announces-store-closings.html?_r=0

http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/06/staples-closings/6114525/

If Staples did not advertise a price match guarantee, today’s events would mean little to me. I would not feel like I wasted time printing out the inventory sheets from the other 2 companies. I would not feel a sense of distrust.

That might seem petty, but because of the store manager’s discretion to not match a $25 discount, he lost the sale of the hard drive. He lost the sale of the sale item we were going to purchase anyway. He lost the sale of those discontinued items my wife picked up.

The reason for not completing the other sales is that without the purchase of the large ticket item, why carry around those other items during our outing. With the hard drive, we would have walked back home. Without, we decided to just enjoy the weather a bit longer and walk a more scenic route back without the hassle of carrying these other items. A different brand of the same sale item is available at Target for the same price. More than likely, it will not necessitate a separate trip to Target as one of us will either be in or driving by that shopping center this week. The discontinued items will be purchased at another time, at another store. As new stock arrives, one can almost always find heavily discounted writing utensils. The hard drive will simply arrive via UPS, Fed EX, or whatever is used for the free shipping.

Financially we did not lose. Staples lost.

When service mattered…

K&B changed dramatically after the sale to Rite Aid. The only way to learn about a TV to purchase is to research it yourself because the sales clerk is unlikely to know anything about it. Mr. Lloyd could tell you about the individual parts of every model and brand he sold.

It saddens me that the brick and mortar stores are fading. Some are making a dynamic shift where the store itself becomes a shopping experience. It is difficult for many to match the prices of online dealers who do not have the same amount of overhead. That shopping experience will work for certain retailers. I wonder, however, if that attention to service and detail that a brick and mortar can provide in a face-to-face environment might be the actual key to survival. Some people may be wowed by an experience, others it is all about price, some convenience, but for many a few additional dollars in price might be worth the extra service.

Service Still Matters…

It’s weird that I bought tires for my truck online and had them installed at a local shop. The shop was an authorized installer, and the shop manager recommended the online purchase since his distributor could not come close to the price. Installation at that shop cost me a few extra dollars than if I had the same tires shipped to a chain just a mile up the road. I liked the Hunter brand mounting and balancing equipment at the local shop which are of superior quality than the equipment used at the chain. The shop manager treated me with courtesy and straight forward honesty about both the tire purchase and mounting prices. In this case, the customer service and being able to inspect the work as it was being performed proved more valuable to me than the $75 to $100 dollars I could have saved at the “get in, get out” dealer before a probable attempt to up sell on unnecessary services.

I suspect that by the end of 2015, the local Staples will be one of the locations being closed. Sad because they are in a prime traffic location and could be winning over customers with quality service and not unobtainable guarantees.

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