Is retail dead?

March 28, 2010

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Wilson's Diner, Waltham MA
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David and I recently ate breakfast at a classic diner, the kind you don’t see much of anymore: a cramped, silver rectangle which looked out of place in its surroundings. We sat on stools at the counter and placed our orders with a craggy old guy who cooked it all on a small grill while making bad jokes about “the women’s lib.”

We paid more than we would have paid at the Dunkin’ Donuts down the road, but some of it was for the experience. (And some of it was for the generous amount of real, non-frozen spinach that went into David’s omelette. But, don’t worry, this isn’t another one of my fresh food rants.)

The next day, we had an appointment with our accountant for the annual beating. The accountant asked me whether I miss my business (I owned a women’s clothing/shoes/accessories shop for years). I replied that sometimes I do, but I know I made the right decision when I decided to close at the end of 2008; frankly, I don’t understand how any small, independent retail stores are still in business, especially in the Northeast, where the weather seems to become a more formidable enemy each year. The accountant voiced his opinion that “Retail is dead,” and we all discussed how online shopping has 100% changed the game.

It has been such a fundamental shift but also one that happened so fast; we went from driving to stores to see what was available and then deciding what to buy, to knowing exactly what we want and ordering (for the best price we can find) online. The only stores which have flourished are the big-box stores like Wal-Mart, which deal in volume and can afford to give us so much of what we “need” at cheaper prices and under one roof. Stores like mine — where I had to wait for the warm, sunny weekends when the tourists would show up, and only then could I start jumping through hoops to try to impress them with my inventory and merchandising? Yeah, those stores have a major problem on their hands.

Now that I no longer own a business, I rarely go to the downtown shops, even though they are just one town over. Why? Probably for the same reasons as many of you: I don’t have much time so I don’t want to drive over there and look for a place to park, only to find that the store doesn’t have what I need or they’re out of my size. Or, they’re closed. The internet is never closed, and my stuff gets delivered to my house!

Plus, like many people, I just spend less these days. I’m more careful. I usually know exactly what I want so there’s no fun in browsing around to see what’s available that I don’t need and can’t afford.

There is, however, an opposing force and that is my desire to spend my money on things that are more special, unique, not mass-produced. This is why I think art is the best gift. And this is why I love places like Austin, TX (where I will be visiting very soon — woohoo!), where they have somehow figured out a way to keep things, in their words, weird.

Is there a way to reconcile these conflicting desires? Is it possible that the very thing that seems to be the death of mom-and-pop shops, the internet, can actually be the savior in the end? Take etsy.com as an example. Hundreds (thousands?) of artisans who would previously have been selling at craft fairs now have a global audience for their goods. Phew, I was getting all mopey there, but now I’m feeling optimistic.

As usual, I think it’s probably all about decisions. Last Christmas, I made a list of the books I wanted to buy for gifts and how much they cost on Amazon. I brought it to my local book store and told the owner that I’d rather give her the business and she matched the prices whenever possible. (I told her to order the ones where she couldn’t match the prices, too; it seemed like a good compromise.) So, moving forward, I will still buy paper towels and t-shirts at Target. But when I do go online to buy gifts, I will remember that there is a whole world beyond Amazon.com.

As David and I were finishing up at the diner, another patron sat at the counter and ordered. He mentioned to us that eating in a diner feels almost like you’re in someone’s home. I replied that I would always choose a diner over a fast-food restaurant and he concurred. Too bad we’re in the minority. I can’t help but wonder how much longer that little diner will manage to stay in business. All I can say is, next time I’m in that town, I will definitely go back.

I’m curious. Have your spending habits changed drastically in the past few years? Do you shop online, at Target-type stores, malls, or in small boutiques? Do you care whether there’s a diner around?




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  • lcarrigg

    And also :) …I struggle with being ridiculously long-winded when I write and so I am constantly trying to cut things out of my posts but in this case I must point out the ridiculousness of my not having mentioned ebay, the total game-changer.

  • lcarrigg

    A friend just asked me on FB whether I'd heard of this: http://www.the350project.net. I had not but it looks worthy of a mention. I know that we are so committed to eating locally and supporting local agriculture; I need to find a way to harness some of that when it comes to other retail establishments. It is so interesting to see this issue from “the other side,” having owned a shop for years. Then again, many things have changed since then.

  • erika

    just recently i had thought to do the same at a local bookstore and then chickened out after fabricating a big scene in my head that included the women at the bookstore asking me who the hell i thought i was, demanding that i never return to her store again, and then telling the other patrons what nerve i had as i walked out the door with my head hung low. i knew i was being ridiculous for the lady at the bookstore is a really nice women, but i still hadn't gathered the courage to go in and ask. i'm feeling better about the idea now and fortunatly i've yet to place my order at amazon… thanks. (as long as we go to the same book store, yikes!)

    ps i ♥ your blog

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