It all began with a lamp purchased during a rare visit to a big-box store. Rare because, since childhood, I’ve been drawn to idiosyncratic, local businesses; places like Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown, City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and Chicago’s Uncle Fun. There’s a magic to these one-of-a-kind places that ubiquitous, cookie-cutter businesses rarely if ever replicate.
Still, every so often I find myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, one of the bigger stores will have the very item I need and save me a few pennies too. Such was my thinking as my partner and I entered a big-box best known for selling fashionable furniture at reasonable prices.
Roaming that store’s sprawling 336,000 square feet — spread over two floors — proved interesting at first but quickly became overwhelming. It felt like a maze, and my feet started to ache. Finally, two-and-a-half hours after arriving, relieved to be winding our way to the exit, we began picking up a few items. A bundle of coat hangers here, a potholder there, some scratching posts for the cat. And then we spotted the lamp. It was striking in appearance and the price was right. So we stuck it in a second oversized, mesh bag and proceeded to look for light bulbs.
Let me repeat that we had been in the store for over two hours, and not once during that time were we greeted nor intercepted by a store employee offering help. As a result, it didn’t occur to us to seek anyone out when we reached the light bulb stage. Instead, concerned that we’d picked up the right product, we double-checked, then triple-checked, comparing the pack we’d selected with what was in the display model. Satisfied that we had, we continued to the checkout line.
Maybe you can guess what happened after we left the store.
We got the lamp home, took it out of its box, began screwing the first light bulb in, and it got stuck. After beating ourselves up for not seeking assistance and then cursing the store for not providing sufficient customer service, cooler heads prevailed. As so often happens these days, we realized that the solution was clear. We would take the lamp to Welna II Hardware in the morning.
For years I’ve heard homeowners proclaim the importance of having a trusted, preferably small, independent hardware store nearby. When business districts revitalize, the call for a good hardware store always tops residents’ wish lists. Now, as a new homeowner in the Seward neighborhood, I’ve come to appreciate why.
On my first visit to Welna II — a member of Ace, the national cooperative — I was greeted by owner Jim Welna. Not in an imposing, nor an intrusive way; he simply and politely asked, “Can I help you find something today?” He then took the time to really help, offering his advice on this product and that. Some were cheaper than the ones I’d been eyeing; some were locally produced, or more eco-friendly. In the midst of a subsequent visit, after helping once again, he surprised me with, “Hey, would you like a hotdog? I’ve got some on the grill out back.” How often does that happen at a store of any size?
Over time, I’ve discovered that the owner’s kind and helpful service carries over to everyone who works for him — a fairly large and diverse staff. Most live in the neighborhood and walk or bike to work. Clearly, Welna instills in them the golden rule of customer service: treat your customer the way you, yourself, would want to be treated. He knows this to be a good business practice, that consumers have plenty of other options available to them, and that the quality of service he provides is essential to bringing people back and making them loyal to his store.
The morning we hauled our lamp into Welna, we were welcomed by a young employee who had waited on us several times before. “Hey, what can I help you with today?” he asked as soon as we entered. After explaining our dilemma, he recruited a co-worker, found the right tools, laid the lamp down on a hard surface and went to work. Halfway through the operation he turned and said, “I can’t believe they let you walk out of the store with the wrong kind of bulbs.” “I know,” I replied, “It really shows the difference between a store like this and those big-box places.”
Big-box and local, independent stores are different in so many ways. Like its companion store — the original Welna on Bloomington — Franklin Avenue’s Welna II is within walking distance of home for many residents of a densely populated urban neighborhood. Besides the convenience, this means it’s more environmentally friendly to patronize than its big-box competitors, which typically require a long drive.
Like most independent businesses, Welna is owned by someone who lives close by. You’ll see folks like Jim Welna working the floor, ringing up sales, even shoveling the walk on a snowy morning. Because they’re on the premises, the Welnas of our communities form relationships with their clientele. In turn they’re responsive to customers’ needs in ways that heads of corporate chains — beholden first and foremost to their stockholders, and with a constant eye on the bottom line — are not.
With a stake in their community, these neighborhood entrepreneurs serve on planning committees and task forces, and donate to local causes. Jim Welna, for example, is President of the Seward Civic & Commerce Association and belongs to various city and neighborhood planning committees. He mingles with residents at community-wide potluck picnics. And he donates generously to local causes, including the annual South Minneapolis Housing and Home Improvement Fair.
It’s become clear to me that businesses of this kind provide more knowledgeable and attentive service than those many times their size. I always walk away from Welna confident that I have in my hands the right part, tool, or supply. I know that I haven’t been sold the most expensive item if something more economical will do. Plus, I’m impressed that they’ll always go the extra mile, as they did with our lamp.
Perhaps most importantly, dollars spent at independent stores like Welna circulate more widely through the local economy. A study by the research firm Civic Economics shows that, for every $100 spent at an independent store, an additional $68 in local economic activity is generated. By comparison, $43 of every $100 spent at national chains circulates back into the local economy. According to Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle, this is because the primary allegiance of chains is to their parent company, not the local community.
Chain stores generally keep local spending to a minimum because centralized purchasing is more cost-efficient for them. By contrast, independent retailers purchase most of their supplies and services from other local businesses. Plus they bank locally, advertise in community newspapers and carry goods produced by local firms. Seward’s Birchwood Café provides a map in its monthly newsletter showing where its food comes from, local providers like Peace Coffee (1.4 miles away) and River Bend Farm (31 miles.) Not only that, but independent retail stores have larger local payrolls that extend to services they hire from local accountants, web designers, and so on.
Finally, with its hand-painted sign, Welna II adds character to the neighborhood, contributing to that “sense of place” that many of us crave.
Now I can imagine some skeptics — especially those for whom shopping is synonymous with chain stores and shopping malls — reading this and saying, ‘Sure, he’s had terrific experiences at his neighborhood hardware store. So what? That’s just one independent business.’
However, what’s striking is how frequently I have such experiences at locally owned stores wherever I go. Just in Seward, there’s Zipp’s Liquors, where the staff offers friendly, down-to-earth advice about wines. No snootiness there. And there’s my favorite hangout, the 2nd Moon Coffee Café. Because it, too, is a place where people enjoy their work. It has a stable, personable staff that knows its customers, often by name. It’s not uncommon for Kari or Nicole to greet me, then grab a mug and start to pour before I utter a word. And they always take time to engage in conversation before the next customer comes along. Compare that with bigger retailers, where ringing up sales is the primary value and training programs instill in clerks, wait staff, or baristas a rigid set of rules about permissible interactions.
I could offer more examples, but you get the idea. While it’s true that there’s an occasional lapse in service, the satisfactions that come from frequenting local, independent businesses far outweigh the frustrations. And they’ve always been my ticket to getting a handle on a community’s culture. As a new Seward resident, local businesses enhance my sense of well-being by helping to ground me where I am. In a world that’s increasingly more transient and where so many of our relationships are mediated, the sense of connection to place that comes through such face-to-face encounters is something I celebrate, on top of local business’s many other virtues. Not surprisingly, when it came time to shop for a teapot, I decided to forego the big-box stores. This time I headed right to a local, independent store, where I found the perfect item that was put to immediate use.
Bruce Johansen is a Seward resident.