Why I Bought at Walmart and What Does It Say About the Future of Retail

walmart-logo-wallpapers-a-e-ibackgroundz.comI wanted a bike rack for my Honda Fit. I was going on vacation and wanted to bring our bikes. I also, having worked many years in a family owned business, wanted to buy it locally. Sometimes it just isn’t possible. Here’s my story of how I ended up shopping at WalMart despite my very best intentions.

On the Friday, three weeks before heading out to Chautuaqua Institute ( a gem of a place by the way) I called Just Ride Along (aka Pete’s Bike Shop). Seemed like plenty of time. It is the nearest serious bike store and it is located in the next town over about 15 miles away. It is a locally owned shop that carries high quality biking equipment and provides full service. I wanted to buy just once, not have to install it myself and wanted something that was well made so Pete’s seemed like the right place. He is the only “real” bike shop for many miles.

I called, he had some Thules in stock. We discussed the issues and I learned that I needed to identify whether my hitch (which I also needed installed) was a 1.25 or 2″ ball. He had both size racks in stock so I just needed (or so I thought) to get the hitch installed. He said that he wouldn’t need to set one aside as he had plenty of them.

The following Monday I called Dixie Auto, a local garage that specialized in hitches and trailer. I had to leave a message for Fred. He managed to call me back on the following Wednesday and told me the hitch would be in 5 days and he could install it then. I thought, a little annoying that it took 2 days to call me back but no worries. It would make it in by Tuesday which would leave me plenty of time to get over to Bradford and pick up the rack  and have it installed before my Sunday departure.

Well it didn’t come in until Wednesday and I couldn’t get down there until Thursday to get the hitch on. Still no worries as I figured I could head over to Pete’s on Saturday. Which I did.

Only to find a hand written sign taped to Pete’s door noting that he was on vacation and he would be back in a week. Now I recognize that Pete chose a lifestyle not slavery but his closing his doors from January to March always seemed to fill that bill in my mind. What was a bike store doing closing during August?

Stranded, not sure what to do I discovered the nearest Thules were at least 50 miles away. Hmm.. frustrated I ran over to Walmart in Bradford and they had a Bell hitch mounted rack, with the right diameter in stock. $100 less. But I had to do the assembly myself. For me living better isn’t about saving money its about saving the frustration of self assembly and getting a durable product that will last forever.

OK. What choice did I have as I was leaving the next day? I can do it, I told myself. I took the sucker home despite Walmart being my absolute last choice of purchase location and started the assembly. No written instructions, pictures only and after I had made 5 mistakes on a 4 instruction process I managed to get it installed.

While I was sitting there assembling the rack, the lawn mower repair company (A1 Rental – who names their company A1 any more) that had taken 2 months to pick up my lawn mower and another one to fix it, delivered the repaired mower. Seemed ironic as I was cursing Pete. That is a story for another day but pick up and delivery is part of the reason that I use them. They just can’t seem to remember that I called (and called and called and called) and asked for a pick up….

Lawn mower in the garage and the bike rack on the car I decided to reward myself for a job well done and head down to the locally owned cupcake shop for some coffee. Upon arrival the sign on the door said: Closed. On vacation.

So why did I buy from WalMart when that was the last thing I wanted to do? Because they do what they do very well. So well that any local business has trouble competing.

They are open 24 hours (and they don’t go on vacation). They have great logistics and inventory control. Even though this Walmart is out in the weeds, they had the one thing I needed. They agreed to take it back if I couldn’t assemble it. In fact they agreed to take it back at the Walmart closer to my house. They were there when I needed the product and they were able to deliver it with reasonable return options.

If I had known the difficulties I would have run into I would have ordered the product from the other company that has their logistic and process act together (and better quality stuff), Amazon.

I used to run a local, family business. I know how hard it is. I don’t fault these local business folks for their vacations or their lack of rigor in their processes. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay ahead of the inventory, scheduling and logistic advantages that the WalMart & Amazons of the world enjoy. Despite my best effort to buy from a local shop, it will happen less and less.

Olean, with its 15,000 people, once was a retail mecca. Starting around the turn of the new century and perhaps before most of the old, post WW II retailers had retired, many businesses were shutting down from the pressures of WalMart and the big box stores and it got harder and harder to find a good local retail store.

The day of the small rural local retailer has passed. But I think that the issues that I confronted in my purchase are now affecting every retailer, everywhere. What was a rural phenomenon, the closing of retail shops is now going on in urban areas as well.

The urban bookstore was the first to go. But others are leaving as well. The day of the large retailer, the likes of Staples, Sears, KMart and Best Buy seem to be coming to an end. What has already happened in Olean will continue to work its way out in every city as retailers fail.

The advantages of scale, logistics, preferential vendor t & c’s, sale per employee etc that WalMart and Amazon have accrued due to their size will continue the consolidation. Retail businesses small and large will become fewer as the movement and sale of products is consolidated into the hands of a few that are truly expert at the processes needed to get products into the hands of consumers and take them back if they don’t work.

I suppose there could always be high end bike shops and local repair shops down the road but as the likes of Amazon & WalMart move into new market places even those will be threatened. And move into new markets they must. Every product in every category is a target for them and once they are done with that they will target the services. Consolidation has taken longer in the physical world than it took in the online world.

But it seems to be on its way.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Why I Bought at Walmart and What Does It Say About the Future of Retail by

12 thoughts on “Why I Bought at Walmart and What Does It Say About the Future of Retail”

  1. Mike: I was reading your article and thinking about the difference between big urban areas, urban areas, smaller urban areas and rural. Came across this article that describes the US population as over 80% urban and less than 20% rural per the 2010 census. http://legallysociable.com/2011/04/11/census-figures-show-growing-urban-population/

    Per the above; urban is a region w/ a metro center of 50,000 or greater. (don’t know how Olean fits into that).

    In any case, you would know infinitely better than I how a local business survives in a less populous area. I have experience in significantly urban areas. The differences are often night and day.

    In any case I’m sure the Walton family is happy to hear that you purchased from their little shops. 😉

  2. Ugh… I hate Walmart, but I get why you did what you did. I’ve never understood closing a retail shop like that when you could have staff run the operation and still break even while you’re not there. The flip side is you lose customers.

    I have a local tea shop I’ve used in Seattle for the past 15 years to supply tea for my business’ customers. They closed their retail location about 5 years ago so they could concentrate on internet sales and avoid the cost of having a store front. Well, my last order from the time of placing it to having it delivered was 2 months. The time before that it was 6 weeks. Owning a small business I’m always looking to spend my $$ locally, but that eventually goes out the window when they don’t make the effort (or are unable) to compete with the big guys.

  3. The service that I receive at the “big guys” aka Walmart just plain sucks. So bad that I actually refuse to go in the store. I understand small businesses and their uniqueness. I try to be understanding to their situations and not just think of myself. I applaud small businesses that close on Sunday. I understand their may only be one person answering the phones and they might have to call me back. But, I expect them to call me back timely. There are many small businesses that offer wonderful customer service. Patronize those businesses. Don’t shop at the ones that don’t, plain and simple. As for me, I know I will always choose a small business over a “Big Guy.” The good small businesses deserve our support.

  4. Appreciate your piece, Mike. I, too, have faced the option of nothing or Wal-Mart in a small, southern town. It’s not a fun choice.

    I am MORE intrigued by your mention of Chautaqua Institute. I have long wanted to go to one of the summer sessions, but living in California makes it a major vacation and I’ve not yet managed it. Any chance you can share your experience? If not, I understand.

  5. Mike: I found your experience foreign to mine. I tend to NEVER see local shops close. I believe its a function of the difference between urban and rural.

    I see you referenced that aspect at the beginning of the 4th paragraph from the bottom of the article.

    By comparison I live in a physically smallish county in a major metro region. Next door is a physically large county with a population in excess of 1 million; Fairfax County Va. By comparison Olean is located in a county physically more than twice as large as Fairfax but with a population of about 80,000.

    Night and day differences. Per google maps I counted over 12 bike shops in Fairfax, plus some in next door counties. G Maps didn’t include the Super Stores such as Walmart or Costco. I bet all the stores are well staffed. They should be. They serve big populations. If they closed doors for a week, potential customers could easily get to a nearby bike shop and potentially never return.

    Aside from those differences though, the Walmarts, Costco’s and Amazon’s do have price advantages over smaller businesses in the metro regions just as they do in the rural regions. Small businesses have to be very sharp, very competitive and offer benefits that the big businesses can’t match.

    That is competition. Its existed for a long time.

    Retail is tough, though no doubt. Its battered by the huge competitors who have price and technology advantages. In that regard it doesn’t matter whether the retailers are located in urban or rural areas.

  6. IF you can find someone to help you in a Walmart, it’s usually someone who is clueless… they stock shelves and could give a shit about you, and what you need. Unfortunately? they often have what we need, have it less expensive that anyone else, and as you pointed out Mike, they will take it back without a hassle.

    *however they KILL their suppliers to make every last cent

    So it really is a conundrum 🙂

  7. Man, that’s how they’ve been so successful. It’s unfortunate that they don’t do everything in a respectable manner and I always like to help out local businesses, but they clearly understand consumers.

  8. I live in a small town in the mountains of Colorado and run into this situation all the time. I’d love to shop locally, but they don’t have what I want/need in stock. And if I ask about special ordering it, I’m usually told it I’ll have it in 2-3 weeks. So I go home and order it from Amazon and have it in 2-3 days. Meanwhile those same merchants whine about not having enough business and don’t seem to be trying to adapt to the evolving marketplace at all.

  9. @Mary Bowling “Meanwhile those same merchants whine about not having enough business and don’t seem to be trying to adapt to the evolving marketplace at all.”

    Bingo! That’s the issue here. That bike shop shouldn’t be taking a vacation in August – period – IF they want to stay in business. Don’t cry and complain to me that the Walmarts of the world are ruining your business!

    The good news in all of this is that a smart, hard-working person can not only survive but thrive with the likes of Walmarts around. These small businesses can offer two things that the Walmarts of the world can never provide – killer customer service and flexibility. For example, the small bike shop owner could offer to have you stop by “after hours” to have your rack installed if their normal business hours don’t work for you. That’s a small and probably stupid example but you get the point. Small business owners have the flexibility to do things that the Walmarts can’t do. Sadly, a lot of small business owners just don’t get it.


  10. I thought of this post the other day when trying to buy a standard house fan for our new home during this heat wave we just had in Orange County, CA..

    For the life of us, my girlfriend and I couldn’t find a fan to purchase. We visited multiple hardware stores: both small and large chain stores. Then we went to went to the big box stores …all sold out.

    Giving up, we hit the ‘net, searching the big box’s online stores. Guess who was the only one that had fans in stock for our area? Yup: Walmart.

    I’m not one to prefer doing my shopping at Walmart, but their merchandising and ability to ultimately deliver the item I’m looking for put them strides ahead of the competition for my business.

    Did I mention that we received the item to our front door in 36 hours? 🙂

    Thanks for another great post, Mike!

  11. You know, there is a simple story behind that: having followed a few meteoric rises of chain stores in Europe over the last about forty years one thing struck me as a feature emerging time and again, the founders were people with a local store which they then reorganized to make it reproduceable across the country or even globally. But it was their own local store that gave them the idea: to be sheltered from the vagaries of “local” by bringing globally similar service to every locale. Sam Walton probably was in a similar situation.

  12. Mike,

    Thanks for this. I too am conflicted. I want to support local companies and I hate the way Walmart treat their employees, taxpayers, etc.
    But unfortunately on a limited budget I end up at a Walmart or other big box store more often that I would like. The only way locals can compete is to have better service and offerings as they will not be able to squeeze their suppliers like Walmart does.

    On the local bookstore front I still am happy to see used bookstores and locals survive. Talking Leaves, which I am sure you’re familiar with in Buffalo, has a great selection of history, economics, and just awesomely weird books.

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