During peak shopping seasons, many people roll out the trite claim that online vendors are hurting local vendors. Truth is, most Main Street vendors are doing a fine job of killing their business, all by themselves.
There are four coffee shops on Main Street in my town. I pass by them all on my way to work. Two national franchises, one regional brand, and a local concern offer the usual: hot coffee, bagels and muffins. Each has a slightly different proposition: The Italian-style coffee, the home-brewed cup, the cheap-in-styrofoam, and bad coffee but great bagels.
Yet I’d rather have a root canal than shop at any of them.
The first shop I pass is a classic assembly line. Order by number at the register, pick up at the end of the counter. But the staff are so poorly trained that when you order a “Number 5, regular” you have to dissect it anyway. That’s a bacon-egg-and-cheese on a bagel with a medium, hot coffee with cream and sugar. And we all know who says Please and Thank you in that conversation.
The second shop is, I suspect, a secret place of torture. At least that’s how the two young ladies behind the counter act as they grudgingly, tediously serve their locally brewed coffee. Not even botox accounts for their inability to form a smile. Their robotic, eye-contact-less approach to starting your day has you wishing for another hour’s sleep.
Next comes the Mega Brand, where customers line up out the door regularly. Some might say that’s a good sign, that customers like the experience and desire the product. Actually, it’s the sign of monumental mismanagement and lack of training. The only reason the line is so long is that, of the four people working, only one is producing coffee. The others are over-stocking the napkins; sweeping; or re-writing the specials on the chalkboard. None seems to know that customers waiting for coffee are inherently impatient.
Directly next door is the regional brand. Here, the coffee is terrible, but the bagels are tasty. Unfortunately, the leaderless staff has someone decided that sickly sweet is an appropriate replacement for respectfully polite. The employees say things like, What would you like, honey? Do you want cream cheese on that, sweetie? Here’s your bagel, dearie.
Acceptable language, were it coming from a grandmotherly-type employee; but from a thirty-something, it’s downright creepy.
Ironically, none of these companies sell products that Amazon or Zappos can compete for, but we wish they could. The inventory isn’t rare, hard to handle, or dangerous to serve. Yet none do it in a way that customers enjoy the experience. In fact, my morning coffee purchase has become an exercise in the following calculation:
Which of the dreaded coffee shop experiences will suck less this morning?
Such calculations, we suspect, are rampant across all product categories these days. Which electronics store will feature the less headache-inducing lighting? Which supermarket feature the less dirty cashiers? Which cell phone store employs the less un-knowledgable staff? Which clothing store will have less blaring music?
Everywhere we turn, we’re looking for the places that suck less to shop.
Service shops aren’t immune either. Find an insurance agency where the secretary welcomes you to the office. You can’t. Call a real estate company whose administrator answers the phone using clear pronunciation. You won’t. Find an airline where the dread doesn’t begin at the first thought of travel. Not in America, at least.
None of which is to say that online vendors don’t have their troubles, too. Some websites are insane to shop. Others won’t stop emailing you after the purchase. Remote vendors can make returns a nightmare. There are plenty of opportunities for customer experience failure online and off.
If you’ve been shaking your head at our little description of local shops, you’re not alone. Which is to say that blaming online companies for the downward spiral of Main Street is the wrong diagnosis. Even with the notably good exceptions in retail, in air travel, in electronics.
Instead, our story suggests other reasons why online shopping is so popular. It’s not just the free shipping (a trade off against instant gratification) or expanded inventory. It’s more, but simpler. The ability to avoid a bad shopping experience appeals to most of us. The opportunity to get what we want, without getting everything we don’t: the eye-rolling, sighing, frowning, mumbling, un-thanking person we’d have to deal with on Main Street.
Online vendors certainly pose a challenge to local vendors’ pricing, selection and convenience propositions. But I’m not alone in going out of my way tofrequent the local tailor, whose service is impeccable and experience relaxing, yet pricing and selection limited. I love browsing the pale blue box jeweler’s store; a place of solace in the noisy city mall. My local real estate broker’s office is a fun place to enter, it’s energy and enthusiasm encouraging.
So maybe Main Street’s problem isn’t that it’s losing the fight on pricing, selection or taxes. It could be that today’s Main Street shops are becoming ugly, brutish places to visit. If Amazon’s experience is better when served by a computer than the local bookstore’s shop staffed by people, then can we really say it’s tax-free shopping that’s taking the business away from Main Street?