February 20th, 2014
Pardon my French, but I feel like a total and utter s**t. At least I’ll be punished by having to walk on the other side of the street every time I want to go to the drug store.
Allow me to explain.
I believe in supporting small businesses. My grandfather, a pharmacist, had his own drug store. My mom feels very strongly about frequenting privately-owned stores whenever she can – drug stores, book stores, you name it – and I try to do the same. I still feel the “You’ve Got Mail” horror whenever some big box something or other gobbles up yet another street, pushing out all the small business owners just trying to get by.
Flash forward to the polar vortex of 2014. I need snow boots and I need ’em bad. I’ve checked all the usual suspects – Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Zappos… nothing but Uggs left in my size (ugh). The shortage is so real that it’s made the news – more than once. There is a small shoe store near my apartment, and I saw some boots I liked in the window. I went in and discovered that they were $245. Not happening. But there was a pair that – all in, including tax – was $130, which felt a lot better than $245. The trained shoe salesman actually acted like, well, a trained shoe salesman: he knelt before me, unlaced my old boots, put my new ones on, laced them up, then followed me around to hear whether they fit. He delivered a real service experience. I left the store with $130 boots feeling sort of ok. But once the $245 phantom price wore off, and I was home with boots for which I’d paid a lot more than I’d planned, I started to get… itchy.
That’s when I went online.
Armed with new information – the manufacturer’s name and model number – I was able to sidestep all the branded retailers who’d burrowed into my brain via their PR coverage and ad spends (I mean, Zappos? Really? I don’t even like Zappos) and leverage the Internet’s long tail by just typing the specific shoe information into Google. This allowed me to browse a number of retailers I’d never heard of, including one that was selling the same pair for $83 all in (including shipping, no tax). That’s a huge difference. I returned the first pair of boots to the neighborhood shoe store the next day.
Now, I feel awful about this. I support small, private stores… I do! But at what price? At how much of a premium? A 56% premium? That’s a lot of money. I am now officially playing both sides of the argument: SHOP SMALL (“these big conglomerates are killing the little guy!“) vs. I WORK HARD FOR MY PAYCHECK AND WILL SHOP WHEREVER I GET THE BEST PRICE (“all these bleeding hearts who whine about little stores disappearing should put their money where their mouths are… but they don’t“).
The brick and mortar stores that survive will, for the most part, have to provide something that is (a) truly irreplaceable, or (b) at least worth a modest premium. I’m talking out of my hat here, but take electronics: people don’t buy the service warranties because they are expensive and don’t get used. But maybe buying a TV at a physical Best Buy should gets you the 3-year warranty for free – an offer not available online. Maybe stores that don’t have loyalty programs will have to start them – programs that provide REAL value – like $100 off your next purchase of any pair of shoes over $200 (I’m making this up, but you get the picture).
I know it’s not my job in life to crack the conundrum of showrooming, but I still feel guilty. That’s why I figure that once I start wearing the boots I bought on the Web – the same lovely boots that Neil the real shoe salesman so caringly sold me in person – I’ll have to avoid walking by the store, lest he see my feet and discover that I was seduced away by a significantly smaller price tag.
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