Ten-stop shopping

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.


thisislarry said...

My wife I were playing hookie last Friday, and enjoyed browsing some shops on Union St. in SF, and then at the mall halfway home to the burbs.

We couldnt do this with the kids, and we couldnt do this if we were doing the weekly family shopping run, rather than just shopping for fun.

The point where you make the tradeoff between the great cheese sandwich and the extra three blocks depends heavily on factors such as: how many grumpy toddlers do I need to bring along?

I'm glad that people are making conscious choices to buy niche, and I do it when the opportunity presents itself. But otherwise, I'm glad for Costco and Target (and by extension Walmart) when I just dont have the time to find meaning in my multipak of beef jerky.

Jessica said...

I LOVE specialty shops or restaurants, because you know what you're getting is going to be awesome. They are so fun...especially the food places. mmm

sara said...

Larry - I totally appreciate your ability to see both sides. While I don't tote toddlers, I will someday - and will surely head to superstores with a "get-in-get-out" mentality. The stores meet an important need.

I also think places like WalMart play a big role in the shifting economy, providing us the ability to trade down in categories of little meaning to us (jerky) so that we may trade up in categories of high meaning (sneakers). When jerky costs less, I can spend more on sneakers.

As long as we retain the stores that deliver meaning (ie badass SF sneaker shops), I welcome WalMart to fill in the rest.

Elliott said...

That's why I love living in Lincoln Square.