This isn’t a wish to return to the 50s or the 60s. We had more than a few nightmares back then. It’s about an economic model gone awry.
If there were such a thing as a real magic wand I might wave it and return the whole country to when most business was small, family and/or locally owned. While I am not anti-all chains, especially not small ones, in my vision I see all across the country many Walmarts following the demise of K-Mart. Mega business shrinks, Main Street comes alive again.
Before Walmart, K-Mart, malls, somewhat before EJ Korvettes, I used to go with my father to Havermale’s: a hardware in downtown Nyack, NY. Just a few doors down was a butcher, police department, Florsheim Shoes, Pickwick Bookstore where I would buy another Albert Payson Terhune book or SciFi like Silverberg, Ellison or Heinlein.
Everything you might want that would have been in a mall or Walmart store if they had been around at the time was within walking distance. On the way, between shops you might meet friends and chat. Each store had its own character.
When I got older I slowly started to move back to where my father grew up and where we spent every vacation, holiday, hunting and snowmobile season. My family had been there since the 1800s: if not living there, as guides.
At first I lived in Old Forge where you could also walk to stores selling almost anything you needed, only the air was cleaner, the lakes, rivers and streams were crystal blue, and New York City wasn’t dangling over the area. Old Forge is still like this: many family owned stores and sole proprietorships owned by locals.
Oh, like anything, I make no claim of perfection for my vision, but there’s just something better about having more small, locally owned, businesses. Like other stores in Old Forge, the Kiefer family’s Souvenir Village has employed many students from local Town of Webb School. Just like as a kid I worked at Mrs. Nolan’s store, or on Dr. Stein’s estate next to Helen Hayes’ home.
Since my youth downtowns struggled and died as malls morphed into Kmarts, then Walmarts; fast food chains multiplied. For some reason they remind me of zombies: half alive, half dead, but eating brains. Not sure why.
We have been steering more towards the mega store model where upper management is far away and, in some cases, you only see mid level management when they want to shake things up. I performed over the years for many preschools and at the chains I would see regionals walk in and demand directors put students on buses and drive them around town when regulators arrived who could cite them for being over capacity. Or the classic: the regional manager who told the director to “get this THING away from me” when a boy offered her a drawing he had made for her.
There comes a time when profit focus becomes so intense, stockholders needs so commanding, employee slashing so severe, salary and bonuses for CEOs so astronomical, it all can become the antithesis of good business, sometimes even a decent society. Small business owned by locals doesn’t get privileges like eminent domain, or a relaxing of the rules. They usually have to live by the regulations as they are. They also usually stand by their products in more ethical ways. In comparison management for mega businesses seem to make stocking decisions less on what is well made than what turns a faster profit and makes themselves look better in the eyes of the brass who are far away. I find myself returning goods far too often. My wife’s grandfather had a store in downtown Utica, NY: Morehouse Appliances. He sold stoves, refrigerators, etc. What was first in his mind: what was well made, what would work well for his customers, what would last. THAT would translate into profit. Not “mega” profit, but the family did well.
Mega stores like Walmart have been heading us as a society away from those kind of business ethics for a long time.
For years I slept on air mattresses when I was on tour. The valves were so bad small stores could not afford to stock them as much due to returns. Mega stores could. Sometimes I’d see the one I returned on the previous visit back on the shelf: packaged well enough that the unobservant might not realize it was a return. Eventually they would only replace a return, not refund. But they still sold them. I still see them being sold in the Walmarts.
If manufacturers had less air mattresses going out the door because multiple, individually owned, smaller stores couldn’t afford selling trash they’d be more likely to fix the problem. Small business really can’t afford to stock poorly made products with multiple returns.
Instead of megas have ‘tactics,’ like air mattresses that eventually could only be exchanged for another with the same problem. Small business would have a tougher time doing that and making a profit, especially with their reputation shot. Multiple mega stores spread across the nation have a lot more leeway for such problems, can afford to try to cut costs through repackaging, or even a shell game: the low price on the shelf scam.
Once upon a Walmart visit the cashier gave me a price I swore the shelf tag had as lower. By no means the first time. Usually they claim I read the tag wrong, another customer must have put them in the wrong place, or it was an old, outdated, sales sign, “OH, THAT sale is over.” There were times I’d walk back myself and I swear I’d see the employee assigned to check out such claims fooling with the placement of the tags putting them where they hadn’t been before. It was seemed probable paranoia, or at least I thought until…
On the aforementioned visit the counter lady looked in disgust and said, “I am so tired of this. I’m going to walk back and check it myself.” She came back and said, “Yes, you’re right…” and started to charge me right price. Her coworker quickly called a supervisor who argued with her in soft whispers she thought I couldn’t hear. Have I mentioned I have incredibly good hearing? Here is what I heard and saw: “Are you sure?” “Did you tell him…” (Look of disgust.) “Could it be…? (“No, I checked that.”) “Well, we usually…” (Another look of disgust in return.) The supervisor even demanded to know why she didn’t send that special someone to check the prices. (“You know who checks these things, right?”) The counter lady’s response was, “Well, you know how THAT goes.” The supervisor left in disgust the employee muttered just loud enough for me to hear, “I’m NOT doing than anymore. I won’t play their games.”
She doesn’t seem to work there anymore. Surprise!
Most small businesses I know reward an employee for their honesty. Out of control mega business seems naturally to steer the other way. Keep profits high, fake prices artificially low.
Every store I went to as a kid was helpful, honest, and priced their goods as low as they could and still pay employees a fair wage, make a profit, make a living. Those who didn’t went out of business.
I have had so much experience with this. My fiancé’ at the time, now wife: Millie, and I used to go to a Mexican restaurant just outside of Plattsburgh, NY: my second college. It was started and owned by a couple who had emigrated from Mexico. The prices were always fair, the service and the food phenomenal. At the time there really were no Mexican places we knew of in Central New York: the early 70s. When we moved to Nashville a few years later they had Taco Bell and Taco Tico: no comparison, and Taco Bell won that chain war. Taco Tico was better.
I spend a lot of time in Old Forge area these days. As soon as my wife, Millie, retires, and we’re able, we’re heading the opposite way of most retirees: north. Old Forge seems heading a different direction too with a rebirth of even more small business.
I want to be able to walk into Old Forge Hardware that occasionally I still call Cohen’s: what most of us called it when we were kids, or Souvenir Village, or Fulton Craft Brewery that replaced the old bowling alley. Chains don’t have the best record here: Howard Johnsons has been replaced by local owners of The Front Door/Front Door. McDonalds is now a bank: even the ghost of Ronald has stopped honking his nose in sadness. His visit here wasn’t long. The Strand across the road from The Front Door is owned by a marvelous couple who offer movies at a price other theaters never would, and movie memorabilia everywhere.
I think we’d be a better country with more locally owned businesses, when employees become family and they’re all weaved in together as a tight community. And I think eventually the goods we buy would improve because merchants, manufacturing and the community are more closely connected, more dedicated to the customer instead of serving the demands some far away headquarters.
I know: my wish may be foolish, possibly impossible, but one can dream.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 40 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks, and into the unseen cracks and crevasses, that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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