Independent Retailers Beat The Boxes On Service, Even In The Shoe Industry

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We have discussed ad nauseam the battle between box stores and independent garden centers. For the small operator — growers or retailers — the box store is like Goliath. For the garden decorator, the box is all she needs. The true gardener visits both, but only buys plants at the box if she spies an amazing value.

The successful independent retailer doesn’t even see the boxes anymore. For them, the box stores are simply part of the landscape and independents adapt. Those who have adapted are doing just fine, thank you.

Box Stores In Other Industries

Is it just the gardening industry that does such battles? Heck, no! The local hardware, the small bookstore, independent theaters and Grandma’s fabric shop all face the same problems, and while there are surely fewer of them, such retailers are still represented in our communities.

I recently had firsthand involvement with a different David and Goliath experience. My wife needed a pair of running shoes for her newfound fitness excursion. Off we went to Academy Sports — the Lowes’ of sporting goods stores — where every kind of shoe, from every brand name, was stacked box upon box in each shoe section. We thought, “How difficult is it to get a pair of shoes?” Unless you are a bona fide track athlete or marathon runner, if the shoe fits, buy it.

We finally found the foot-measuring doodad, and off we went to scour the shoe selection. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Susan wanted ASICS, a brand she had worn before. After inspection of seemingly hundreds of boxes, we could not find one pair of ASICS in her size. We checked one notable brand after the other but none was particularly comfortable. Finally, we just hauled down boxes of the right size, brand be damned, and ended up with something reasonably appropriate.

To say there weren’t any salespeople would not quite be true. To say there were not any knowledgeable salespeople would. However, like all lazy people, we put up with the chaos because the store was there and the price was likely cheaper.

Superior Service At Small Stores

Athens, Ga., is a college town with lots of runners, so there still are people who want the best for their feet. On the way home, we remembered a small running store near our favorite restaurant, and since I wanted to do everything possible to keep my good wife’s feet in running order, we said, “What the heck, it can’t be any worse.”

Neither of us had ever visited the Athens Running Store. It was tiny compared to the box, but as soon as we talked to an employee, it became obvious these people knew what they were doing.

As with many small retail shops, the owner was there and took care of Susan, chatting with her and measuring her feet properly. That seemed reasonable, but then he asked her to step on a machine that measured her instep, arches and weight distribution. He said it was simply a tool to complement his measurements, and he was fairly confident in a proper shoe choice.

The service just kept getting better. He put her on a treadmill hooked up to a monitor and determined the tendency of her feet to turn in or out as she walked. This definitely was not Academy Sports. He found a shoe that felt good and will likely keep her feet happy.

Lessons For Small Operators

Not only did Susan get a shoe that fit properly, but it was less expensive than the one she had purchased at the box store. Who would have thought?
Perhaps all husbands know what came next. “Allan, why don’t you get a pair, too?” My shoes (purchased at the box store) were fine. They were relatively new, but I was so impressed with the service, I could hardly wait for my turn. It felt like a thorough dental checkup but without the pain. We both walked out with new shoes on our feet, and I realized this experience is not much different from our industry.

The parallels were obvious: good people make a difference. What did the Athens Running Company gain from our visit? It sold two pairs of shoes. It has two pleased customers extolling their name all over town, as well as a rave review in a national column. Score: David 3, Goliath 0.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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