The “Mom & Pop Shop” Myth

Reading time: 1,650 words, 4 pages, 4 to 7 minutes.

There’s been so much U.S. political theatre lately (Stormy Daniels, Kavanaugh confirmation, Mid-term elections, etc.) that I thought it time for some diversion and bust a bit of bunk.

I roll my eyes when people advocate shopping at local stores rather than the ‘big box stores’. They decry the disappearance of the neighborhood store – the “Mom & Pop Shop” supposedly killed by the big box stores. They never consider that in many cases the local store deserved to go out of business.

Luddites were 19th Century workers who tried to destroy machinery which automated mundane manual labor. [Link] One such modern Luddite with a vituperative loathing of big box stores is the writer, James Howard Kunstler.   He’s a wordsmith extraordinaire, and I love his turns of phrase, but he thinks with his heart, not his brain. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one pumps blood; the other thinks. Not surprising, he’s a Socialist who admits to voting for Obama not once, but twice. He’s what Nassim Taleb calls an IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot.) [Link]

There’s an old saying; if you’re a conservative at age 20, you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist at 40, you have no brain.

Big box stores give us lower prices and a greater selection of merchandise. However, the Socialists tell us that the resulting low wages and part-time work in the retail sector do not make a ‘living wage.’

That’s a ‘Straw Man’ Fallacy. It’s true; they don’t provide living wages, but they were never intended to do so. What they don’t admit is that low wages and part-time work in the retail sector rarely produced a ‘living wage.’

I remember as a high school student working part-time at The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) store half a century ago in the 1960’s. I made $1.05 an hour. Their employees weren’t exactly millionaires. n fact, eEven full-time HBC employees were never considered ‘Middle Class,’ few were sole income-earners and those who were struggled to make ends meet. In other words, little has changed since the introduction of big box stores. The big box stores aren’t the demons the Socialist would have you believe.

Things change. Get used to it. Many of those extinct Mom & Pop Shops were dinosaurs that needed to go out of business. Perhaps not all of them, but undoubtedly many deserved to die. Let me explain.

Years ago, I occasionally flew to Toronto to deliver government tender submissions because couriers wouldn’t guarantee the delivery time of time-sensitive documents. I flew out early and returned as late as possible the same day so I could spend the better part of the day shopping.

For bookworms, Toronto was a great place for bookstore shopping. Queen St. W. had eleven privately owned bookstores within seven blocks of University Ave. They offered a wide variety of different types of books, most new, some used. They provided excellent service and reasonable prices.

Then, big box ‘Chapters’ bookstore opened in downtown Toronto (on Yonge St. I think). In no time, all the Queen St. W. privately-owned bookstores except one went out of business. Then, ‘Chapters’ closed. Whether that was deliberate or plain stupidity, I don’t know. What would be the point of driving out the small independent shops if you’re not going to stick around to profit from their disappearance?

In any case, I can only hope there’s a place in hell reserved for ‘Chapter’s’ CEO Heather Reisman because no one benefitted from the disappearance of these independent bookstores, not even Heather’s big box store. That’s a valid example of a big box store killing Mom & Pop shops that did not deserve to die.

However, there are many examples of Mom & Pop Shops that, thankfully, should be exterminated. For instance, I have a commemorative, battery-operated wall clock. The electric motor died, but they’re replaceable, and I know they’re available at craft stores.

I went to a local, independent craft store and explained what I needed. The owner walked me over to a shelf that unfortunately was empty and said, “Oh, we’re out of stock so they should arrive in about ten days.”

Two weeks later, I returned and was told, “Oh, we’re out of stock so they should arrive in about ten days.”

This time I waited a month. I returned and was told, “Oh, we’re out of stock so they …” I didn’t wait for the rest of the sentence. I’d heard it once too often. Three strikes, you’re out, Buddy! I said nothing, walked out and went to ‘Michaels,’ a big box craft store.

At ‘Michaels,’ I explained what I wanted. The clerk walked me over to a section with several shelves of various sizes of clock motors. They had hundreds. I bought one. Not only did they have a great selection (and no waiting), they were about 25% cheaper. Do you think I ever went back to that Mom & Pop Shop? No! But, I have returned to Michaels numerous times since because they have a great selection of a wide variety of merchandise at reasonable prices. And, the shelves aren’t empty.

Here’s another example of ‘buying local.’ Several years ago, I needed some new undershirts. Sears (oh, why do I punish myself?) had a large variety of brand names. They were all made in China. Most of them were each $11.00 (in over-priced Canadian dollars) regardless of brand.

They also had ‘Stanfields’ made in Nova Scotia, Canada for $16.00 each. That’s 45% more, but in a moment of weakness, I felt I was supporting fellow Canadians and Canadian jobs. I bought some. At home, I took them out of the package and discovered they were so flimsy they were almost transparent. WTF? I paid 45% more and got half the material. I returned them.

Then, I went to Mark’s Work Wearhouse. Their store-brand was made in India, they were twice as thick as Stanfield’s and, get this; they were only $9.00 each. That’s cheaper than Sears $11.00 and a lot cheaper than Stanfield’s $16.00. I bought a ton of them. Sorry, fellow Canadians, but a miser like me refuses to pay an extra 45% for half the product.

Here’s another example. A fellow I know and some of his buddies carve wood as a hobby. I asked him what types of wood he prefers carving and he gave me a brief run-down of various wood types, some of which were quite exotic.

I asked him where he got this unusual wood. He said that they bought their wood and carving tools from a local shop, but he and his fellow-carvers formed a co-op and are ordering their supplies in bulk (and cheaper) from out-of-town.

I asked why. He said it’s because the local shop was closed most of the time. I asked why. He said the owner of the shop only opens when he wants and since he’s rarely open, they found a more reliable supplier. The local shop is now out of business. Small wonder!

Here’s another example. I like rye bread, and I’m always on the look-out for an excellent loaf. A colleague suggested one particular bakery, but he said to get there before 9:00 AM. I asked why? “Because he’s usually sold out by then.” I asked why not bake more bread and was told because it’s enough to make a living. Apparently, it wasn’t because they’re out of business now, too.

Yet another example is searching for a faucet reseating tool to resurface the seat on a leaking kitchen tap. I scoured half a dozen hardware stores and found nothing. I called several plumbing supply stores. “Yeah, we’ve heard of that tool, but we don’t carry it.” Finally, in desperation, I tried Amazon. They had them. In fact, they had several different models. I ordered one.

One last example. There was an excellent hardware store next door to my office. Great selection and reasonable prices, but they close at 5:00 PM, so I had to leave work early and make a mad dash before they closed. I often wondered how they could service the retail trade if they close at 5:00. Apparently, they didn’t as they’re out of business now, too.

There are two common themes here; one is value, the other is service.

I was prepared to pay more for a Canadian undershirt to support Canadian jobs, but I was not going to pay more for only half the product. That’s value.  And, if you don’t service your customers by keeping your shelves stocked when promised or your doors open or convenient shopping hours, then customers won’t support you.

It’s not rocket science. It’s why so many complacent Mom & Pop Shops fail.

Can a small, independent shop compete with big box stores? Yes, they can, but they need to find a niche market and fill it. That’s why convenience stores exist despite higher prices. They’re convenient. That’s service.

That’s why small, independent hair stylists exist despite competition and lower prices at the chain stores. They give excellent customer service, and they provide an experience that the chains don’t. That’s value.

However, if a Mom & Pop Shop rests on their laurels because that’s the way they’ve always done it, they better bend over and kiss their butts goodbye because both life and customers will pass them by. Things change. Get used to it. Remember, the dinosaurs went extinct, too.

Conclusion: we can’t always blame the big box stores for driving the Mom & Pop Shops out of business. Sometimes, yes. But, often the local shops commit suicide by their complacency, not giving value or service and refusing to change with the times.

So long! Good-bye and good riddance. I’ll miss them, but I’ll find alternatives.


October 21, 2018

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About gerold

I have a bit of financial experience having invested in stocks in the 1960s & 70s, commodities in the 80s & commercial real estate in the 90s (I sold in 2005.) I'm back in stocks. I am appalled at our rapidly deteriorating global condition so I've written articles for family, friends & colleagues since 2007; warning them and doing my best to explain what's happening, what we can expect in the future and what you can do to prepare and mitigate the worst of the economic, social, political and nuclear fallout. As a public service in 2010 I decided to create a blog accessible to a larger number of people because I believe that knowledge not shared is wasted.
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2 Responses to The “Mom & Pop Shop” Myth

  1. Guy Bocian says:

    Good things come to those who WORK…

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