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It looks like shopping has come full circle

Our small town has lost another business. Not the big box or national chain type they seem to go out of business anywhere. No, our loss was the locally owned, small-town, friendly-service type of store. It's the type where the clerks and sometimes the owner know your name and take the time to ask about you and your family. Where there is no such thing as a "quick in and out." Where you don't worry about price or what's on sale.

Many locals have decried the closing and expressed concerns ranging from anger over a perceived monopoly by the same type of national chain that remains, to sadness over the loss of the personal service and care that the staff gave to its customers.

I have thought a lot about retail stores and the fate of small-town shopping districts since closing my personal service business more than 15 years ago. A recent article by Howard R. Stranger, titled "Larkin Decline," appearing in the Western New York Heritage magazine, sheds light on what took place in yesterday's world of retail and may help explain why so many of those seemingly popular small businesses close today.

Stranger reveals how the Larkin Co. soared into prominence in the early 1920s based on the success of mail-order and the "Larkin Secretaries" who organized clubs and sold Larkin products from a limited sample base and an extensive catalog. But by the mid-'20s, increased automobile ownership allowed consumers to shop in large department stores.

In this environment, customers could taste, see, feel, hear and smell their potential purchase. Add a knowledgeable and attentive clerk into the mix and the secret of success was achieved. Larkin couldn't compete in this brave new world. I wonder if a similar scenario is playing out with three-dimensional stores today?

Aggressive Black Friday pricing and earlier-than-ever door openings the day after Thanksgiving seem to suggest the employment of extreme measures to retain market share while "cyber-Monday" sales growth -- more than double last year's record tallies, according to business reports -- clearly establishes the Internet as the rising method of choice for millions of American consumers.

To me, it smells like trouble. Just try to find a sales clerk or associate to answer a question or check a price. They are few and hard to find. This is a tremendous change from the type of service many of us remember at AM&A's, Hengerer's, Hens & Kelly and Kleinhans in the heyday of downtown and even my small store.

How ironic is it that the Internet, a true two-dimensional shopping experience like its ancestor the catalog, has forced many "brick and mortar" businesses to reinvent themselves in the new order? Giants now run websites that outperform the "virtual" outlets that once were the flagships of shopping malls. How long will it be before certain goods are available only as an online purchase?

Is it any wonder, with so many people now leaning toward cyber-shopping, that any business specializing in personal service is experiencing a shrinking market share, a smaller customer base and tides of red ink?

One can only wonder if the Larkin experience may someday repeat itself in a convoluted way. Will the current trend toward two-dimensional shopping found on the Internet be replaced in the future by a demand for three-dimensional personal service? I will not live to see it, but I wish it would.

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