How many stores do you really need to go to?
In days of yore, you'd go to the butcher, the tailor, the baker, the silversmith. A trip to the store meant a full day in town, stopping at each of the specialists for what he or she did best.
Then came the general store. Suddenly, all your dry goods in one place. Grains, eggs, candy and newspapers. People got the convenience thing pretty quickly. Maybe you still needed the butcher for that special cut of meat, and the tailor for your new pants, but the general store was a very early attempt at one-stop shopping.
Zoom ahead to 1962. Wal-Mart is founded in Rogers, Arkansas. Slowly one-stop shopping begins to take on a whole new meaning.
Today, in Wal-Mart, you can do your taxes. You can get a contact lens prescription. You can buy a couch, a cellphone, a lawnmower, a shotgun, a watermelon, an Xbox, a 7-night cruise to Bermuda. You can order a birth certificate. You can refill your Viagra prescription. People, the list goes on and on.
But you wanna know something? For all this convenience, Wal-Mart still sucks.
I won't go into the many reasons, but my thesis is this: if you are all things to all people, you are nothing to anyone. You have lost your meaning.
Let's go now to a different part of the world. New York City is ten-stop shopping...the exact opposite of a Wal-Mart. Each time I visit, I'm confronted with some new, nichier-than-niche shop, doing one thing and one thing only. There is the french fry store, the rice pudding shop, the milkshake company, the peanut butter sandwich restaurant. Every brand has its flagship store, from Adidas to Nintendo to Samsung.
Now I recognize that this model only works in places like Manhattan, where 26,000 people fill every square mile. You can stop in each individual store because they are all within your immediate neighborhood. These stores bring back some meaning to the task of shopping. You might have to walk three extra blocks to get a great grilled cheese sandwich. But it's better than the one inside Wal-Mart.
NYC is in direct conflict with the convenience trend sweeping the rest of the country. And sure, Americans are time-crunched. So one-stop shopping will always have its place. As long as Wal-Mart wins on price and convenience, the same 138 million Americans will walk through its doors every week.
But I want people to remember that the small businesses, the specialty stores, the long tail of retail, is where the meaning is. Wal-Mart is cheap and easy, but its environment defines generic, its employees the epitome of apathy. It's the little stores, that do one thing really well, where meaning is found.