Monday, March 16, 2009

Note to independents . . .

Ron and I are in the midst of remodeling the 3rd floor of our house. The bathroom should be done by tomorrow, and then we're going to paint the main room and install new carpet. It's all very exciting for me because it's even better than rearranging furniture, which is something I enjoy doing so much that I'm finally realizing maybe I'm a little OCD after all.

On Saturday morning, Ron and I headed out to look at carpet. We thought we should try independent carpet stores first. It was 8:30 in the morning, which we knew might be a little early, but we had to take Owen somewhere anyway and figured if the stores didn't open until 9:00 then we could grab a hot chocolate at Starbucks and wait.

10:00. That's what time the two stores in our little town opened. On a Saturday. 10:00.

So here's my little bit of advice to independents. And I feel like I can give you this advice because my parents owned an independent bookstore for 30 years before selling it to my brother, who has now owned and run it, combining it with his toy and teacher supply store, for the last 9 years. I know how hard my parents worked. I know how hard my brother works. I know how many mornings they woke/wake up at dawn and how many nights they stayed/stay at work past closing time.

You want to compete with the big boxes? You want to even complain about the big boxes? Then work hard. Period. You wonder why Home Depot and Lowe's have full parking lots while yours is empty? It's because they don't wait until 10 a.m. to open. And don't tell me you don't want to hire employees to come in for the few customers you may have that hour. You go in. And saying that those few customers aren't worth your time is the same thing as saying, "Take your business elsewhere." And we will. Yes, you'll likely end up working 75 hours or more a week just to make ends meet, but that's the risk you took when you started your store. Did you think it would be easier?

It's not just carpet stores or small hardware stores I'm talking to. It's clothing stores and bookstores and toy stores and any store that doesn't have anyone but you to rely on for its success and doesn't have anyone but you to answer to.

My day gets started no later than 7 a.m. every day, Saturdays and Sundays included. By 8 a.m., my older 3 kids are at school. By 9 a.m. three days a week, my youngest is at school. Those three days, I'm left with 2 hours to get my errands run before I have to pick him up. You don't open your store until 10 a.m., I'm going somewhere else. I don't have time to wait for you. I don't have time to consider how much of my money isn't staying with "the community." I have a family and a household to run. I'd apologize, but I'm not feeling really sorry about this. I'm feeling frustrated.

Here's what I do feel sorry about: independents who have worked their tails off and then gone out of business. I'm sorry about the independents who have always gotten up at dawn and gone to bed well past putting in a 12-hour day at work and then gone out of business. I'm sorry about the independents who have sought to truly serve their customers, because they know their customers actually matter, and then gone out of business. These are the independents who can say, as they're locking up for the last time, "I tried my best. Times have changed and I just couldn't hang in there any longer." These are the independents I do miss and I'm afraid someday will miss.

My frustration is with the change in our attitude toward work. My father was born during The Great Depression and grew up on a farm without indoor plumbing. He lived like his grandfather had lived as a boy. Life was really hard for his family. Really, really hard. But he learned to work there on that farm, and it was that same work ethic that he and my mother, raised by a struggling minister, drilled into us as kids. You can never take full credit for your successes, but you had better take full credit for your failures. When did that work ethic change to: You can take full credit for your successes, but find someone else to blame for your failures?


Shankar said...

That post really lives up to the title of your blog! Have you thought of sending it to the "Letters to the Editor" section of all Chicagoland newspapers?

Bobbie said...

I told Ron I was definitely feeling the "vent" when I wrote this. I hadn't thought of sending this to the Letters to the Editor, although it's been an issue that has bothered me for a number of years. I'll have to think about venting beyond this page.

Jenny said...

I love reading your blog. You expressed so clearly what is too true.