They paved paradise

This just in: recent research has shown that the most significant rise in shopping dollar expenditure in the past 10 years has been at big box and warehouse stores, not via online retail purchases. At the risk of dating myself, I remember when the word ‘ecommerce’ was coined and the time when our firm’s nascent ecommerce consulting practice was shrouded in mystery and black magic: the blind leading the gullible with high hopes and deep pockets. Although certainly a large dollar volume moves through Amazon’s virtual stores (and I don’t think there is anything you can’t buy from Amazon, from coffins to plastic surgery), people spend much more time researching potential purchases online than actually getting out their credit cards to complete the transaction. The relevant statistic is that 60 to 80% of internet shopping carts get abandoned long before check out time. So one might say (and in fact I am about to) ecommerce is less than meets the eye.

But back to the whole big box thing. It used to be we had department stores where you could buy just about anything: hardware, wedding dresses, cheese and watches. Gradually (or in some cases drastically), these stores paired down and eliminated their wide range of departments. Suddenly you couldn’t buy fabric at the same place you bought sewing machines or pick up a cake and a cake plate at one go. There are about as many explanations for this as there are explainers. Competition from specialty stores, the prohibitive cost of managing too many SKUs, enthusiastically embracing the 80/20 rule, the high cost of downtown rents, and of course, the rise of internet commerce making both physical location and inventory location irrelevant.

Another factor at play here is of course the pace of suburban sprawl. Downtown is far from the only place to shop and why would you drive downtown and pay for parking when you can drive to your local big box plaza and park as long as you like for free. That’s the good news.

The bad news is your shopping choices consist of Costco and Super Walmart. Costco has to be the ultimate flag bearer for conspicuous consumption. Anyone who has shopped there knows the exact reason why it contributes immensely to the increase in retail expenditure: they don’t call it ‘big box’ for nothing. It is impossible to buy less than two of most things, and certainly impossible not to buy less than very large quantities of the things they sell by the each. And of course that means it is impossible to get out of there for less than triple digits. But look what you can buy: electronics, jewelry, furniture, lawn mowers, garden sheds, mattresses, clothing, books, toys, flowers, etc. Wait a minute – doesn’t that sound kind of like a department store?

Except the department stores I remember didn’t have florescent lights, warehouse shelving and aisles clogged with large shopping carts overflowing with more food than any family should be consuming in an average month and lots of screaming children (who previously were only a palpable presence in the children’s clothing department). Then, instead of dealing with an efficient, smartly dressed, pearl clad saleswoman, you get to line up like cattle being ushered through the slaughterhouse gates to get processed through the payment process.

So today I start my one person crusade to bring back the small box store. The store where you can find small quantities of things. Where they wrap them in tissue paper and place them in a bag. The store around the corner from where you live. Where they even might know your name.

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