Value of small business lost in today’s consumer culture

For the past two years I have had the extreme pleasure of working for a small retail business, one that has been run by the same family in the same location, for 49 years. Often curious customers will ask us how it is possible to last this long in a world of big box stores. Normally, you just shrug and throw out some line like, “It’s tough, but we get by.” Yet, just this past summer, news reached us that two big name chain stores were setting up shop not a two minute drive down the road, raising a whole new set of concerns. The first, a furniture store, is not as worrisome to us as it is to the handcrafted Mennonite furniture store beside us, but the other, a home decor store, stands to take a good hit on our giftware department. “Oh well,” we sigh. “It’s just another battle within the perpetual war against the big box stores.”

The words “big box store” are used very loosely here, but what does this term mean? The obvious connection would be the fact that the majority of these stores do indeed resemble big boxes. However, not every big store is labelled a “big box.” Stores within this category trace their roots back to 19th century Paris. It was here where the first department store as we know it, La Bonne Marche opened, with a desire to offer the widest range of goods, over the widest price spectrum possible. 173 years later, that goal has changed very little. With the ease of overseas shipping, companies can now purchase an even greater variety of goods. Because of their gigantic buying power, they are able to negotiate huge discounts on their goods, often making them synonymous with cheap products.

Even though societal demands insist that we turn up our nose at the whole concepts of big box stores, I suspect that most people, deep down in a corner of their hearts, harbour a secret affection for these stores. Aside from their typically low prices, they are incredibly convenient. Where else can you pick up an emergency box of cereal at quarter to 11 at night, or find the perfect birthday gift for that cousin you only talk to twice a year?

Yet, all this convenience comes with a price. A “big box mentality” seems to have settled on the consumers of today. My particular job may have afforded me a unique perspective on this problem, but it seems as if the constant ease of access has alienated people from the entire process of production. Because so many goods are right there at our fingertips, we are never forced to consider the work which goes into getting the product onto the shelves. This disconnect is what hurts small retailers the most. Customers fail to realize how the inability to purchase large quantities of a particular product often results in a slightly higher cost to them, and puts increasing pressure on small businesses to price match with “the big guys.”

This pressure cannot go on indefinitely; something has to give. Either the retailer must drop their prices and somehow swallow the losses or keep their prices a bit higher and lose customers. Both options eventually lead to the demise of the company. One obviously negative result of this demise is that the very livelihoods of these people are disappearing. However, there is a second, less obvious ramification. There is an incredible wealth of knowledge which now stands on the brink of extinction. I am only a relative newcomer to the world of small retailers, having worked before for a large chain store, but it did not take long to realize that there is an incredible amount of passion among most small retail owners.

These people have devoted their entire lives to service in a specialized field, and their passion for the topic translates into greater knowledge, both from personal experience and research. It is this wealth of knowledge that sets small retailers apart from the big box stores. Not that you can really blame them; the more products you sell, the harder it become to be a true expert in any, let alone all, of them.

As much as I would love to tell you to boycott all big box stores from this day onward, that would be just silly. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, big box stores are here to stay. However, I do encourage you to start exploring the small retail businesses around you. If you have questions about the product they are selling, go ahead and ask them. There are, of course, exceptions, but most of these small business owners are genuinely passionate about their field and love nothing more than to share that passion. As the gift-giving season quickly approaches, there is no better time to search for these hidden gems. They may be a dying breed, but they have so much to offer.

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