I have a guilty conscience, and Small Business Saturday has really heightened my struggle with my inner demons. You see, I shop on the Internet. And <sob>, I like it. I mean, I used to like it. It suits me in so many ways. But if we’re going to turn this town around, we should all start spending more money locally, and it starts right here. Hopefully it will, at least. I’m starting my rehabilitation now, asking Weelunk readers to nod knowingly as I bare my soul, and then maybe suggest ways for me to become a better local shopper. And please ignore the irony of asking the Internet to help me overcome my Internet shopping problem.
Let’s start by talking about what I buy and how I buy it. First off, I buy a lot of stuff used- cars, furniture, electronics, tools, clothes, DVDs, and really anything else that is practical and not gross to buy secondhand. I’ve spent a lot of time browsing eBay, and before Weelunk came along and consumed all my free time, I used to look over every ad in the Northern Panhandle Craigslist, every day. I’ve scored some sweet stuff for cheap over the years, and I don’t feel too guilty about it because much of it, especially the heavy stuff that doesn’t ship easily, ended up being bought locally even though I found it through the Internet. For example, a 400 lb tire balancer, a 1950’s refrigerator, and a wicker furniture set. But yeah, the smaller stuff tends to come from Whoknowswhere.
I do a lot of brick-and-mortar store shopping for used stuff, too. Sib’s is my go-to, and while I’m there I hit up St. Vincent de Paul, too. The Centre Market antique stores are great, and The Rustic Bucket in Bethlehem always has interesting stuff for me (I tend to like big, old stuff more than “collectibles”). My first stop for sporting goods is Play It Again. When I need the kids to fall asleep, we take a car ride out to the Barnesville Antique Mall, or head the other way to the shops along Rt. 19 in Canonsburg. That may be a bit outside the Weelunk service area, but I always say that one of the great things about Wheeling is its proximity to Pittsburgh and all the cool things that entails.
It’s not my used-goods shopping habits that I’ve been losing sleep over. It’s those times when I have to bite the bullet and buy stuff new. Grocery shopping is worth mentioning- like most people, I spend a good chunk of money on groceries on a recurring basis. I tend to do it locally, of course, but at major chain stores. Maybe 10% of the time I go to Riesbeck’s, which is headquartered in St. Clairsville, but now that I’m more keenly aware of the issue at hand I want to try to flip that ratio to 90% Riesbeck’s, 10% major chains. There’s absolutely no reason I don’t already shop there more- the employees are hands-down the nicest and I’ve never had a problem with prices or selection. I guess it’s just that in Wheeling you shop at Riesbeck’s if you went to Bridge Street for junior high, and I didn’t. My wife did, but she doesn’t go grocery shopping. She will go to Jebbia’s which is awesome too.
Another category where I spend a fair amount of money on new stuff is electronics. I’m a tinkerer, so I always find myself buying hard drives, memory cards, thermocouples, and other parts. I don’t even know if there are truly local places to buy stuff like that. I’ve not had good luck at box stores- I usually leave muttering curses under my breath- so I almost exclusively buy these online, either at Amazon or Newegg. I wish it weren’t so.
Home improvement projects always seem to require lots of spending. I do almost none of this online, but I still feel guilt over not having frequented the TrueValue Hardware on Washington Avenue enough to keep it open. I want to double-down my resolve to use stores like Nau’s and Kennedy’s more so that trend doesn’t continue. Not that big chains are bad- they certainly employ a lot of local people and the sad fact is that many of the the products for sale in locally-owned stores come from China just like those in chain stores. The days of Made In Wheeling are gone. I will say that chain stores tend to lack character, and character is what makes things lovable. Has anyone ever fallen in love with a city because of its selection of chain stores?
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Scanning through my order history at Amazon, I think I’ve pretty well covered my shopping categories. There are some things in there that I tried, but just couldn’t find locally (someone show me a bag of whole bean decaf coffee for sale locally, and you’ve got a new customer). Most of the rest are electronics, which I discussed, birthday party supplies (my wife has an obsession and is the pickiest person in the world), or car parts, which I haven’t discussed because no one else works on cars anymore and I don’t want to be boring.
I feel a bit better now, having aired some dirty laundry and resolved to make some changes. But I fear a relapse, because shopping locally often isn’t as easy as shopping in chains or online. I’d like to dare to make some suggestions here, from a customer’s point of view, on how local businesses could become more attractive.
Extended hours. The world is different than it used to be, and it’s hard for people to go shopping between 9 and 5 on weekdays. I recognize that for any business being open evenings and weekends means someone has to tend the shop and therefore can’t be home with their family when they might want to be. But I think being open at least some evenings and on Saturday (dare I say even Sunday?!) has become a necessity. I suspect that it can be a difficult transition- it could take months, or years, for customers to adapt to evening hours from a business that hasn’t had them before, and traffic will be light in the interim. On the subject of business hours, I’ve had a few awkward experiences lately involving the definition of “closing time”. In my experience, a posted closing time on a business represents the last time that a customer can enter and begin shopping or expect to be served. They may not be ready to leave for some time after that. If you or your employees need to be turning out the lights and driving home at a certain time, please adjust your store hours accordingly.
Website. Is it any surprise that the guy with an Internet shopping problem says you should have good website? Not everyone is the pick-up-the-phone-and-call type, and sometimes it’s hard for customers to even find an address and phone number if you don’t put it out there yourself. Facebook is great for communicating with customers, but if you have an electronic inventory system, port it to a website. And put prices on it.
Drive-thru. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I really don’t like drive-thrus or any of the cultural baggage that goes with it. I’m all about parking at the back of the lot (so nobody dings my fresh paint job) and walking wherever I need to walk. But sometimes I just can’t. A few days ago my wife texted me while I was out with two of our young kids and asked if I could go into one more store and pick up sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. I mustered every can-do attitude in my body and then texted back, “I can’t. It’s too hard.” So if you want to capture every possible sale, cut a hole in the side of your building. This goes double, at least, if you sell coffee.
Sales technique. Try to recognize when a customer just wants to be left alone. Like when you ask if they need any help and they reply, “No thank you.” I like to shop in solitude for the most part, and hovering salespeople make me unable to think clearly. The Internet used to be great for this, but now sites pop up windows on you with young women in dorky headsets offering to live chat with you. Oh well. I’m sure there are people who will storm out in a huff if left to shop in solitude; as a store owner you need to accommodate both of us, somehow.
Exposure. I think when you live in a place for long enough, you get set in certain habits, including where you shop. When I think about how often I go to an existing business that I’ve never been to before, it’s pretty grim. We’ll all try out a new place, sometimes just once. But how can existing business owners entice potential customers that have been ignoring them, maybe for decades? I don’t really know, but I’d love to see it happen. I suspect that as with so many other aspects of the Ohio Valley, if we all really explored the shopping opportunities around us, we’d find them far richer than we ever expected.