BIZTIPS - August 3, 2008

by Art Hill

Biz Tips: Big Box Stores Don't Replace Family Businesses

This week we have a follow-up to a previous column about small retailers competing successfully with “big box” stores. The story should sound familiar if you’re a regular customer of a certain hardware store on Main Street.  Let’s just call it “Zim’s.”

My dad and I used to go to Harrison’s Hardware in our home town for weekend project supplies.  The store had started as a shop across from the park in the middle of town, then it grew in stages to a half-block deep with a second story loft for inventory.  The pine plank floors were worn unevenly by years of work boot traffic and there was a small wooden ramp that helped old timers step up to the back section with its galvanized bins of nails and shelves of Benjamin Moore paint.

I was thrilled to find a similar store in another town where we bought our first house.  The house was a partially restored Victorian, and we spent enough money in that hardware store to endow a memorial wing.

There were no big box home improvement stores in either place, only these welcome reminders of robust mid-20th century commerce and family business ownership.  These businesses were built on commercial accounts and personal service for do-it-yourselfers.  When the big box stores arrived, experts foretold the demise of main street shops.  Some owners retired or sold out.  Others hung on expecting the worst.

Funny thing though, in many cases the worst didn’t happen.  Not that it wasn’t tough.  Product mix changed, pricing became more competitive.  Individual accounts declined as credit card use rose and took a bite out of each sale.  But the legendary “mom and pop” stores survived.  Now with fuel prices hovering between four and five dollars a gallon, things look downright bright for local retail.  “Buy Local” now means “Buy local or pay $30-$50 per round-trip to the nearest big box.”

And that brings us back to Zim’s Hardware.  Even though this has been its “new” location for decades, there’s a well worn floor, a small ramp up to the back door that reminds me of Harrison’s Hardware every time I step on it, and bins of fasteners that make every search for a 3/8” x 16 bolt a bit of a treasure hunt.  Young Jim can cut you a perfectly round replacement for your vanity mirror, and when he’s not printing topo maps for hunters, Bob can sharpen your favorite kitchen knife until it slits paper drawn lightly across the blade.  They listen patiently to customer tales of do-it-yourself disasters and offer advice based on generations of experience.  If you look carefully on the floor near the metric fasteners, Stubby, the store cat is snoozing peacefully knowing that customers are getting the products and help they need.

Sound like a big box store?  I don’t think so.  Sound like a business based on quality products and personal service?  Sound like a local solution to expensive shopping travel?  Sound like a link between fond memories and memories in the making for future generations?  Right on all counts.  I’ll be at Zim’s next weekend for something to finish an old project or start a new one.  See you there.

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