PUBLISHERS NOTEBOOK: End of the line for retail experiment
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 8:18 AM
My experiment in retail is mostly coming to an end today (Wednesday) as our store, Bluff Country Wireless, will no longer be an agent of Verizon. I have mixed emotions, but in some ways it will be a relief.
The store opened a little over five years ago when we moved our newspaper office in Spring Valley. The owner of the building had another building next door for her cell phone store with an opening between the two buildings. She asked me if I would be interested in purchasing the building and running that store as well. I ran the sales and expense numbers by a consultant out of the Minnesota Small Business Development Center and we decided it would work out.
It did work out nicely for the first few years. But, then things changed. A shakeup in personnel for a business that requires specialized knowledge, competition from the local phone company that solicited customers and an increasing move to online buying all contributed to a drop in sales.
More than anything, though, is that the novelty wore off and I discovered I wasn't nearly as interested in electronics as I am in the newspaper business.
The decision of a July 31 end date was made for us by people up the corporate ladder with no explanation from them. It wasn't necessarily due to low performance because stores with very high performance were also chosen for a shutdown.
That was one of the reasons the business didn't appeal to me. Someone else called the shots and we were more of a middleman - selling the product, but not always being able to satisfy the customer because of constraints from above. That was so different than my newspaper business.
If Bluff Country Wireless were my only business, I would be upset, but it was more of a sideline and we had made plans to shut down on our own anyway. That's why I leased the building it was previously in to a person that had a viable local business and moved the store into a portion of our newspaper office.
It didn't fare as well after the move. However, there were other factors for that decline as I found you can't cut your way to prosperity. As we cut hours, cut advertising and cut service, our business went down. Had we kept our Saturday hours, and perhaps even expanded into evenings, and advertised more, I'm sure we could have hung on. But, my heart wasn't in it and the decision from above may have come anyway.
Although retail will still be a part of our operations - and we plan to expand into a line that is more closely aligned with our current business - I did learn a lot from my experience.
I now understand how retail business owners in small towns can become frustrated over the seeming insensitivity of local customers. We had many people who bought something in Rochester or online and then came into our store when they had problems. Our prices were the same and people obviously knew how to find our store since they did when they ran into problems, but their mindset was big city first for purchases.
I also realize how some business owners can have some hostility over never seeing certain people in their business. Saying "shop local" and actually shopping locally can have a big divide.
On the other hand, as my business morphed, I can also see the other side. Businesses can't expect people to shop locally just because of their location. They have to provide a reason to attract local residents - through convenient hours, exceptional service and quality merchandise.
Even with all those ingredients, I know it is still tough because online shopping has become so common. However, now people that buy online will have to take care of their problems online, over the phone or with a trip to the nearest larger city.
I don't want this to seem totally negative. There were many enjoyable parts of this five-year experiment. It was fun seeing more people in a different capacity than getting news. And, there were many great customers that were so loyal I feel as if I'm letting them down by closing.
As they say, even through failure, you can learn something valuable. I've learned quite a bit over the years and in some way it will benefit me in the future.
I appreciate all the loyal people who made the business enjoyable and memorable. It gave me a new perspective on how committed certain people are to building a viable community.
For those that avoided the store, I hope you give other local merchants a shot. Although they are in business to make a living, they are located in our community because they believe in it and want to keep it vital.