Life

If Big Box Stores are Dying, Who’s to Blame?

Big box stores are seeing less business while online retailers are growing. But who’s really to blame for that shift?

Recently, I needed a new computer keyboard after my previous one met an untimely demise thanks to a spilled cup of coffee. (The coffee spill was thanks to my Collie puppy, not me.)

I drove to a big box electronics store to find a keyboard and a USB extension cable to accommodate the computer desk I use. I knew going in what I was willing to pay for both, and as I use a Mac, I knew exactly what the keyboard should cost based on Apple’s pricing. I did that pricing research with Amazon.com.

Big box stores vs Megasites

The big box stores have several advantages over sites like Amazon. They allow you to see the products in person, hold them in your hand, interact with them (in some cases) or even try them on so you can see firsthand how they’d work for you.

Big box stores also offer you immediacy: you can buy the product right then and there and take it home with you: there’s no wait for shipping.

And depending on the store, you may even find a knowledgable person who can tell you not only about that product but also about comparable alternatives that you might like better or that might better fit your family’s needs.

The big box sites, however, offer two critical advantages.

First, the sites may have a wider selection of models because their products are stored in various warehouses all connected to their network. That means there’s no limitations on selection based on one store’s physical shelf space, and no rationing to affect the specific location you’d otherwise have to drive to.

Then there’s price. Because a site like Amazon doesn’t have to offer hundreds of stocked stores and the full complement of employees in each, they save money on merchandizing. Their efficient warehouse networks mean that different products can be stored in fewer locations from which they can be shipped anywhere. The savings on the same items between sites and stores can vary substantially.

Customer service still counts.

When I visited that certain big box electronic store, I quickly found a keyboard that was within the right price. But I had a difficult time locating the USB extension cable. I’d found them on Amazon for about $6, so I knew that was the price I’d be hoping for. But I was beginning to doubt that the store even carried them. I found several employees — some in tech support uniforms, some in the traditional polo shirts and some in shirt and tie (presumably managers) — congregated along an main aisle.

I asked one about USB extension cables. Without taking a single step, he pointed to a corner of the computer department and said I’d find USB extension cables “over there”.

He made no effort to take me to the specific aisle or to show me the selection they had.

I found a second employee walking by, who didn’t speak to me until I stopped him to ask for the cable. He found one for me, and the price tag for what seemed a comparable cable to the one I’d found on Amazon for $6 was $29!

The store’s price was a deal-breaker. But even if they had been close in price, the way I was treated in that store may well have prompted me to not buy from them anyway.

Customers deserve better. What’s more, we expect better.

Giving up the personal touch.

The thing is, there are occasions when we’re perfectly content to give up the personal connection we used to have in every shopping experience. Many of us have resigned ourselves to encountering either no employees on the sales floor while we shop or — even worse — an employee who knows nothing about the merchandise we’re looking to buy. As long as they’re helpful and do their best to assist us, we’ll accept this faster than we’ll accept rudeness.

One of the grocery stores I frequent has a self-service cash register. I can ring up my own groceries, swipe my card and I’m out the door. I don’t need a cashier to do that for me; I’m just as fast on my own, thank you very much.

When I buy something through Amazon, I know I’ll never interact with a human being. I don’t even know whether Amazon has a toll-free customer service number one can call to ask questions; I’m so accepting of the idea that shopping there means going it alone that I haven’t even attempted to seek assistance.

So five-star treatment, even at a one-star store, is not a requirement.

In fact, it’s not even expected anymore most of the time. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I receive it, but since I usually don’t expect it, I’m usually not that disappointed if it doesn’t exist.

The Old Dogs Need Newer Tricks.

Don’t get me wrong: no one is more nostalgic for great old brands than I am. I hate to see a long-established brand disappear. Stores like Sears, Kmart and J.C. Penney have all been around — in one form or another — for more than a century, and it’d be a shame to lose them.

But then you consider that a brand like Amazon has only been around for 20 years. Yet in just two decades, this “newbie” has managed to be giving businesses with five times the experience a major run for their money. How does that happen? Innovation, maybe? Looking at the way things have always been and figuring out ways to do it better — or at least differently enough to make customers take notice and give them a try?

If every purchase I make through a site like Amazon is to be regarded as my contribution to the “death” of big box stores, I have to respectfully suggest that if the big box stores could do what their newer competition can, I wouldn’t be on Amazon.

Your Turn:

Do you ever shop on sites like Amazon? Do you feel guilt about “killing” traditional retailers when you do? And what would be the biggest deciding factor for you in terms of whether you’d shop at a traditional retailer or a site like Amazon?

2 Comments

  1. Although I understand the allure of both shopping online and in big box stores, I wonder why you wouldn’t go to an independent dealer and actually receive personal, knowledgeable service? We wouldn’t have to worry about how either killed mom and pop if more people did. Alleviates much frustration, as well.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing. Gen Xers grew up with malls and corporate stores, so miss them as they disappear. We boomers, on the other hand, experienced independent ownership and all the service that comes with it. I think that the ability to sell product depends on interpersonal relationships and that’s sorely lacking in big box and online venues, as you’ve noted. There’s enough room for both, imo.

  2. I shop at Amazon quite frequently, and not only for the actual products, but reviews as well. Amazon customers tend to post reviews (the site of course, pesters you shortly after you get the product). I buy enough from there that Amazon Prime (~$90/yr) was worth it for the free 2-day shipping on most things. I don’t feel guilty about shopping there – they have the selection I want. I am certain the big box retailer of which you speak was the same one that I went to for a PCI NIC card. They looked at me like I was nuts – “Oh, the one you plug a cable into? Why not just use wireless?”  I explained to them that the theoretical throughput for a regular wireless AP was not enough for the application I was using it for – a VMware server – and that since it sits right next to the router and switch it’d be foolish to use wireless.  Long story short – they don’t even carry the NIC that you put in your computer anymore. I had to order one online for far cheaper, but I was willing to pay more for the instant gratification.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.