When asked by industry friends how I am spending my “semi-retirement” as I like to call it, aside from my continued work with TWICE, some of you know I’m also writing a book. I have been doing the research and interviews about the neighborhood where I was born, raised and currently reside, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I’m writing about the Italian-American section of the neighborhood, and in interviewing current and former neighbors, friends and family, many of the memories were about stores they shopped at years ago — and still do today.
Our friend’s 30-year-old son remembered when he was younger than 10, walking with his grandmother most weekdays to go to shopping in a four-block radius to a vegetable store (which my mother always said had the best garlic and broccoli di rapa); an Italian pork store (where they only bought sausages, but there was other delicacies there); an Italian bakery (where they only sold a variety of Italian bread, but no cakes or pastries); and a butcher shop (where you bought beef, chicken and cold cuts — but not pork).
In telling the story, our friend’s son, who cherished the memory, commented, “Today, in plenty of neighborhoods, you can buy it all at one store.”
Very true. But will the quality of the products be there? And at what cost? And I don’t mean how much cash comes out of your wallet or your credit card.
What kind of experience is it to go to one store — whether it is a wholesale club, department store, supermarket chain or whatever — vs. going to a local merchant who may also be your neighbor? Local retailers not only provide specialty items, they know what you like, what you don’t, and sometimes they know your extended family — not to mention provide news of the neighborhood. All of this provides a sense of community.
From what I remember, and found out during interviews, there were plenty more vegetable stores, Italian bakeries, butcher shops, pork stores, fish stores and pastry shops all over Williamsburg. The proprietors not only provided for their families, they employed plenty of neighborhood people who, while they may not have had the cash to open their own stores, taught them the basics of capitalism and what it takes to run a business.
When I was in high school I worked part time in a local drug store during the summer — I had to do deliveries — and in college I worked at a men’s clothing store as a salesperson. I never opened up my own retail store, but those experiences provided an understanding of the challenges CE and appliance retailers face every day. This in turn helped me understand and cover the industry.
I’m not a romantic. The efficiency and pricing of national chains and their websites will continue to dominate retail sales. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my new millennial neighbors here in Williamsburg love to buy commodities of all types via Amazon Prime.
But millennials, baby boomers and everyone in between, have begun to appreciate the shopping local. They have begun to understand in a post-manufacturing economy the value of having independent retailers survive and thrive in their neighborhoods and towns.
Independent CE and major appliance retailers, as well as custom installers, can capitalize on these local trends with unique selection, service, providing a good in-store experience and knowing your customers — with the additional tools of online reviews and social media.
Retail is more than just a series of transactions. It’s a way of life.
Steve Smith is editor at large of TWICE and its former editor in chief.