September 28, 2017

Why we shop where we shop


Rod McDonald Identifying why we shop in certain places, while avoiding others, is not easy. Why some places succeed, while breaking all the established rules of retail, is bewildering — yet all of us can name several. 

My wife and I were walking along 13th Avenue. That is our funky, artsy street in Regina, albeit on a much smaller scale than other cities. We passed by Cuppa’ T, a retail store that sells, quite obviously, tea. I said to my life’s partner (I love that phrase and just had to work it in), “The woman who runs this shop is so nice that sometimes I stop in to buy something, even when I was not planning on doing so.” She has good product, a bit pricey, as you would expect, and the shop is clean. What sets her retail experience apart is the good conversation. Sometimes it is about tea, and others it is about grandchildren. Sometimes nice pays the bills.

At the other end of the conversation is a small stall at our local Farmers’ Market. The young man selling his products is a regular smart-ass. If you would like, I could reframe that statement, I could use more subtle and polite words, but that’s not really me. I was buying one of his products and he let fly with one of his quips. From his perspective, he thinks he is just telling it the way it is — but from his customers’ perspective, not so much as borderline rude. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the reality is, he pays the price for speaking before he thinks, as I no longer bother with his booth. Just not worth it to me. 

Never think that I am on a high horse or preaching from a soap box. I have screwed up on many occasions over the years with my attitude, and I can testify, it does cost. I have often wished I had a Delete button on my mouth. Somehow, this wish is not as funny as it is poignant.

As I have already mentioned our local Farmers’ Market, allow me to continue down that line of thought. I am a regular shopper at our twice-weekly street bazaar. I attend the market to purchase items I cannot find elsewhere. I also spend time socializing, as I know many of the other customers as well as the vendors. For me, being at the market is a social outing as much as a buying trip; a totally different experience from a major grocery store. That is something for us in the green trades to consider. This atmosphere cannot be duplicated at the box stores, but it should be at our greenhouses, garden centres, nurseries and stores. 

The first myth about The Farmers Market is that the middle man or retailer is eliminated, ensuring better prices for both the farmer and the consumer. The prices are not better at the market than at the grocery stores. They are usually higher, but people are willing to pay the price, in spite of the myth being not true. The explanation is, better quality justifies the higher price.

There are farmers, craftsmen, juicers, bakers, knitters, canners, butchers, pickle makers, soap makers and honey producers who produce and offer incredible products that cannot be found elsewhere. This is why I attend. A young woman with a big smile produces yeast-free bread that people line up to purchase. She is sold out within an hour. The line-up is not for cheap bread, as her loaves are around the seven-dollar mark. The line-up is for loaves that are well made and taste wonderful. Bread, such as this, is rarely found any more. In our trade, we know that what cannot be found elsewhere sells quickly. 

There are also booths where the baking is terrible, the pies not worthy of any decent table, and so on down the line. The second myth of the farmers market is that all booths provide good product. There are places where the quality is so circumspect that the word homemade is an excuse for poorly made. 

A friend of mine was the chief organizer for our local market a few years back. She told me flower sales were diminishing, and market customers wanted only veggie plants. I pointed out the hanging baskets were below Walmart quality. “Why would anyone want to buy one of those?” I asked. We looked at the petunias and the geraniums and they were poorly grown as well. I told her, “Flowers are still popular, but they are not selling here because you do not have a good grower.” I don’t think she appreciated my candour; truth was not on the agenda that Saturday morning. 

I told her my alyssum story. Towards the end of June, several years ago, a grower called. He had trays of very nice alyssum he wanted to sell. I asked my greenhouse manager how many we wanted and she responded, “None. We have lots and alyssum has stopped selling.” I went out to inspect our alyssum, and it was not selling because it was not first-rate. I took 20 trays and they sold within two days, and then I took another 20 and so on until he had none left. The customers are coming to us for the good stuff, and that is what sells. When they have good plants at our local market, they do sell, but when the quality is poor, so are the sales. There is no trend away from flowers, only a trend away from bad plants. Again, this is a lesson that applies to all of us in the retail business. 

What attracts people to shop at the box stores? Quality, for the most part, is not there. Everyone knows that service is a joke, even when you can find it, and selection is not a priority. 
Obviously, price is the motivator. While I hear people swear they will not return to a box store again after a bad service experience, they will. For some, the siren song of the cheap price is too strong to resist.

That song has been around for a long time and I suspect, for better or worse, it will be around a while longer. As independents we have to deal with that reality and most of us have done so a long time ago. We have gone beyond our initial fears and we are still in business today.

In 1982, my bedding plants were 99 cents for a six pack. Woolco (now long gone) had a full page ad in the local newspaper the Friday of the May long weekend. The ad proclaimed in large, bold print, bedding plants were 69 cents. I was young, fairly new to the commercial wars, and my stomach turned. I lost a night’s sleep. The next day I had the best day, ever, in sales and we were run off of our feet until 9 that night. I learned and have relearned the adage ‘Not everyone wants to shop at the box stores.’ 

A similar story applies to our local bike shop, Dutch Cycle; in business for 60 years and well into the third generation. They sell only the best of bikes and their repair shop is legendary. On a Saturday morning in April, there is a line-up out the door.

London Drugs’ arrival in our city about 20 years ago was preceded by stories of their retailing prowess. Dutch Cycle was worried: London Drugs was rumoured to retail bicycles below cost. Would Dutch be able to survive the competition? The angst was real, as it has been for most of us in a similar situation. Long story short, neither London Drugs nor any other box store has been able to compete with Dutch Cycle. Price is not the deciding factor, but service. 

One big box store came to Dutch Cycle and asked Dutch to look after its service requirements on a contract basis. A stipulation was, the box store customer went to the front of the line for priority service. Fred, one of the owners, said, “You mean your customer, who did not buy his bike from me, gets priority over one of my regular customers who has bought many bikes from me?” The answer was a resounding yes. Equally resounding were Fred’s instructions to find someone else. 

Service sells product and product creates service. I doubt if any of the fine men at Dutch Cycle lose sleep over the box stores any longer. This is another important lesson for all of us to remember.

I have always maintained the four determinants of retail success include quality, service, selection and price. Most of us are not able to compete with the box stores on price, but we do outshine them with our quality, our service and our selection. Stories of the farmers market, Dutch Cycle and Cuppa’ T all confirm my assertion.

Stay on the road to success while you emphasize your three pillars of quality, service and selection. 
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.