The cry goes up, as Macy’s and Sears announce plans to close even more stores, what hath Amazon wrought?
To which I answer, “Not a thing.”
A couple of stories from my distant past:
No. 1: There was a Sears store in the first shopping center I ever visited as a child. My mother alternated between the Co-op and the Purity store, two retail chains that have long since disappeared (also without Amazon’s help), as well as a toy store. I liked that mall, as outdated and mid-50s as it eventually came to be (it’s completely torn down and redone now).
But as an adult, I would occasionally visit the Sears store. It would be hard to find clerks, and the merchandise was never quite as good as other department stores. But what really floored me one day was when I wrote a check for a purchase. This shows you how long ago it was – the idea of a debit card was still years in the future. In those days, when you wrote a check, cashiers asked for two forms of identification, which was usually a driver’s license and a credit card.
I handed over both, the latter an American Express card. The clerk looked at it as if he’d never seen one before, and then at me. “Don’t you have a Visa card?” I looked at him like he was an idiot, which he was, took back the American Express card, and handed him my Visa card. But I began to associate Sears with a lower social strata.
No. 2: There was a time when Macy’s was my default store: clothing, housewares, gifts, you name it. It always struck me, in an age when it was more efficient to retain a customer to get a new one, that having someone like me was retail nirvana.
We had bought a trio of candle holders at Macy’s, each one a metal stand of staggered height into which a glass neatly slid. Nothing fancy, but elegant enough for our young household. Of course, one of the cats knocked over one of the stands, breaking the glass. Dutifully, I took the metal stand back to the store so that they could order another piece of glass for me.
“Oh, we can’t do that,” said the clerk immediately. I didn’t understand. I’d bought the item there. They knew who the manufacturer was. The manufacturer could surely ship a replacement piece of glass. It wasn’t like I was asking for them to replace it without charge. The answer was still an unqualified no.
Being a good default customer, I wrote to Macy’s corporate. Surely, this was just the ravings of a lazy clerk. Surely, it was not. In response to my letter, I received an ungrammatical, ungrateful response not from an executive, but from an executive’s assistant, confirming that indeed, Macy’s had absolutely no interest in helping to keep my candle holders trilaterally intact.
We stopped going to Macy’s (although we will occasionally drop in for Frango’s, even though they make them really hard to find).
My point is that both of these events are from the distant past. The first happened long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye, and the second one long before Amazon became a retail powerhouse. Online commerce did not cripple Sears, Macy’s, and their ilk. Sears, Macy’s, and their ilk crippled themselves by turning a deaf ear to customer needs, customer service, and just plain customers. They may have felt they were immune in the past when they were hot stuff, but when alternatives appeared, guess what? Customers disappeared.
What’s not yet obvious is whether online retailers, by virtue of the fact that they can maintain their electronic distance via e-mail and phone prompts from hell, will tread the same path. One hopes they remember that no matter how or where the transaction takes place, there are always people to worry about: the potentially dissatisfied customers who will take their business elsewhere, and the upstart retailers who will welcome them with open arms.