I 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.Why I Bought at Walmart and What Does It Say About the Future of Retail by Mike Blumenthal