Buying Local

I had an interesting shopping experience today, on the extremes of the retail spectrum. You probably know about the big box end, Wal-Mart. The other was a sole proprietorship, which I'll call "The Luggage Store," run by a guy I'll call Dave. Dave was a high school acquaintance of a good friend of mine, and the combination of my affection for my friend Darrel and Dave's attitude about high quality products has made me a loyal customer. We've bought 3 pieces of luggage from him, and they've all served well for a good amount of travel around the world.

Dave has attitude to spare, covering more than just quality products. When you get on his wrong side, it feels like it's him against the world, and there must be something wrong with you. Darrel had explained -- with apparent fascination -- that the guy was an amazing asshole. (Darrel, by comparison, was a wonderful, smart and funny guy, a great friend who left this world much too soon.)

Just before we were scheduled to go to China in April, I'd gone in to The Luggage Store to buy a transformer for using our electrical appliances in a 220V/50Hz land. I don't remember that interaction, but I have the sense that he had exactly what I needed, and I bought it for a price that was higher than I'd expect elsewhere. The personal, fast, and knowledgeable assistance makes it worthwhile.

Making our final preparation for the postponed trip, I looked through the package and realized that I didn't have the adaptor plugs that would be needed between wall outlet and transformer. I'd already decided to go to Wal-mart on the strength of a recommendation to get another set of NiMH batteries there, and I figured I'd see if they had the plugs at the same time. I looked a long time on my own in electronics, small appliances, electrical, and then finally asked a clerk in the digital camera section who asked if she could help me while I was looking at the prices on SD memory; she said "that would be in electronics." Where's that? "The next aisle over," where I had already looked, as it happens. A clerk over there knew what I was after, and walked me the 10 or so aisles away where it was. There was essentially the same transformer, in a package that included 5 plug adaptors, for $4 less than the transformer alone had cost me earlier.

I had a sense of dread about going to The Luggage Store, but I figured that perhaps the package I'd bought was supposed to have the adaptor plugs -- there was an odd bit of space in the otherwise tidy box and packaging. If that was the case, I'd collect the missing parts, and return the Wal-mart purchase, even though it was cheaper, as a loyal customer of the small businessman. My inquiry started with that: was this supposed to include adaptor plugs? No, if I needed those, I should've bought this other set, he told me, with a deepening sense of concern and affront in his body language.

Long story short, he got his back up in a major way, wanted to make it clear that he "hadn't fucked (me) over," as he put it. When I told him that I'd found the same transformer with the adaptors, for less money, and so I no longer needed the transformer, he demanded "where did you get it? Because I'm the only one in town that has the dual voltage transformer!" I brought it in from the car, told him "Wal-mart" with even more dread. Sure enough, that triggered a tirade about how I'd be left with nothing, and did they give me any *assistance* there? (Well, it wasn't the same as I was getting now, to be sure!) And they didn't repair any luggage (?!) and he'd been in business for 25 years, and you don't stay in business that long if you fuck people over.

After I did my best to smooth his ruffled feathers, he did refund my money, running a reverse charge on the credit card I used, without asking for my receipt (which I hadn't dug out and brought with me). He did the right thing, in a really unpleasant way, in essence.

When I got home, I noticed the little nylon carrying pouch that I'd forgotten to put back in the package with the rest of the stuff; I don't want to keep it, so I get to go back to the store tomorrow, and relive the experience. :-/

I have mixed feelings about Wal-mart, and I've long had a bias toward buying from local firms when I can. There are certainly clerks who don't know what's what (let alone where or if it is in the store), and there's a lot of cheap merchandise, and some of it is low quality. But they do train the staff to be *nice* to people for God's sake, and they do have some good merchandise that people want, with damn low prices. They didn't have a wide selection of the transformer/adaptor sets, they had just one choice -- but it was the right choice, and for a good price.

Somewhere in the diatribe, Dave said "I'm going to be out of here soon," meaning, I suppose, that he was looking to retire from what must be 25 years of unpleasantness for him. He'll want to sell the business, I imagine, or maybe not; maybe liquidating it will be good enough for him. I feel sorry for the guy, because he doesn't think the world has changed in 25 years, and that Wal-mart is going to leave us all with nothing, and that there will be a hole in the ocean when he pulls his finger out of it.

It doesn't look that way to me.

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

Friday, 31-Oct-2003 18:46:27 MST