More Is Better

strength

Do you get pounding headaches?  Sure you do! Who doesn’t? That’s why you’ve got a bottle of pain-reliever in your medicine cabinet, right?

I get really, really bad headaches – migraines, in fact.  They’re nasty buggers, I tell you! No messing around with ‘Oh, I have a headache, but I’ll keep on hammering this nail in’ kind of pain.  Oh no, baby!

Migraines are all-consuming, whatever plans you had, well, they ain’t gonna happen kind of headaches.   I wouldn’t even call them ‘headaches’ – they’re more like a ‘I’m gonna put your brain in a blender and your world is gonna stop working for a while’, kind of thing.

Because I get migraines, when I feel a headache coming on I know that it’ll escalate into that crippling, soul-sucking, stop-the-train pain, so I take something right away…and it better be the ‘Extra Strength’ stuff.

HEADACHE

So I have to wonder why, if anyone feels the need to take a drug to help ease their pain, they’d ever take regular strength when ‘extra’ strength is right there on the shelf beside it?  Are they some sort of pain martyr?  Do they feel that they want to only relieve some of the pain, but not all of it?  Are they trying to prove something?

It’s like coffee – I never understood why anyone would drink decaf in the morning.  Isn’t the whole point of drinking coffee in the morning about waking you up?

“I’d love a coffee – make mine a decaf”  Huh?  I want the coffee but I don’t want it to do what coffee was carefully harvested, hauled down the mountain, roasted, shipped to my local coffee shop and sifted through boiling water to wake me up, was meant to do.

Batteries are the same – if you have a choice, wouldn’t you get the ‘Heavy Duty, long-lasting’ ones, and not the ones that’ll lose their juice after 10 minutes?  I hate buying batteries and I hate replacing them.  I’ll get the long-life ones, please!

I just renewed my passport – same thing;  I have a choice to stand in line, get a new horrible photo taken, stand in line again, then wait for 3 weeks for it every 5 years, or get a 10 year one that costs less than double the 5 year, and I only have to take a terrible photo every 10 years.  passport

Who would do 5?  Do people actually enjoy sitting in a Government queue all day?  Not this cowboy!  See you when I’m in my 60’s and I don’t care what I look like any more.

Marketers know this.  That’s why you see so many products with ‘Extra’ or ‘Plus’ all over them.  People want more, not less.

“Get 20% More for Free”

“Now With More Cleaning Power!”

Who doesn’t want more?  More is good.  Extra is good. Longer Lasting is good.  Regular strength is not.

…don’t get me started on de-alcoholized beer!

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Missing the mark – why you should hate Target

target fail

Last week Target Canada announced that after 2 years of losses, it was going to take it’s little dog and go home, leaving the land of maple syrup and poutine to pick up the pieces of a shattered dream for over 17,000 Canadians.

Sure, Canada can be an inhospitable place when it comes to the frozen retail jungle, with our high taxes, importing tariffs, base labour rates, etcetera, etcetera.  That much we know, so why didn’t the big brains at Target know that?  Maybe they could have nudged a friendly Canuck on the arm and found out what we’re all about, or sifted through the ashes of other failed chains like Radio Shack, Sam’s Club and Marks & Spencer for clues.

Perhaps the giveaway of their eventual demise was their clamor to buy up retail space from the failed Zeller’s chain…an omen of things to come?

We can all sympathize with the dire news that hits us every January in this country, when the bean-counters tally up the coveted Christmas retail sales numbers only to find another chain is waving the white flag and liquidating it’s inventory as sales fell short of what was needed to keep the ship afloat.

For that, I feel sad.  For Target, my feelings are not so benevolent.  It has nothing to do with it being a U.S. chain that invaded our snow-covered borders.  Heck, we were excited to have them here!  We welcomed the enormous bulls-eye with open arms and open wallets.  No, my wrath has nothing to do with where Target came from.  It’s in how they came and how they left.

Target arrived with more fanfare than a Presidential Inauguration.  “We are the great Target, and we will give good jobs to hard-working Canadians.  We will support distributors, vendors, support services, and landlords; bring tax revenue to this quaint little country, and we will take on the much-despised Walmart”.

They traded here on their U.S. strength, deep coffers, savvy buying and great prices all wrapped in a sophisticated retail environment.  They said, in so many words, that they were a huge American company, so trust them.

Vendors signed up to deliver goods without credit check, terms or deposits.  They were happy just to be one of the few chosen to stock the shelves in this great retailing giant. Workers were romanced into leaving good paying jobs to join this amazing company. They all had dreams of long-term growth, as demonstrated south of the border.  And Target traded on their impressive U.S. CV.

But something went very wrong.  Their first store openings were as unimpressive as a beach party during a Canadian snow storm.  Empty shelves, weak pricing, boring selection all had the Canadian shoppers shaking their collective heads as to what Target was thinking.

It never got any better.  Stores continued to suffer from delivery issues, non-competitive pricing, and ineffective advertising.  The only thing emptier than the shelves were the check-out lines. The writing was on the wall right from the first ribbon-cutting in Guelph Ontario.

Bad planning?  Perhaps.  Underestimating the Canadian retail landscape?  For sure. These things are tragic and stupid, but that’s not what has me writing this.  The ire is in what Target did next.

After using the American head office muscle to sway us into a false sense of security with Target, they decided to pack up and leave not as an American retail powerhouse, but as a failed Canadian company that has applied for creditor protection (Canadian version of Chapter 7 – bankruptcy protection).

That’s right – Target, with all its money and influence, chose to slink back south of the border without having to make good on it’s promises to us Canadians.  Besides the 17,000 plus employees that are left in the dust, Target has used a legal loophole to avoid having to pay it’s bills here.  Not as that big American company that used all its leverage to gain favour, but as a uniquely Canadian company unable to cover it’s debt.

So now they’ll leave with hat in hand, saying ‘Gee, shucks.  Really sorry about all that inventory you shipped us, but we can’t pay for it’.  Nowhere is the American parent, still with deep pockets and international influence, swooping in to take care of the mess their offspring created, even though it was that parent who persuaded us to ‘trust’ their kid.

Where is that strong giant parent company, now that all those workers are applying for employment insurance?  What about the suppliers who are hoping to get something from the inventory liquidation process to cover some of their losses – and probably having to lay off more people – the contractors who clean, maintain, and provide security to the Target stores? All out of work, and possibly out of pocket.

There are more, I’m sure that will be affected by this, and many won’t get paid for outstanding invoices.  Target will carry on south of the border as if nothing happened up here, and some of us will still travel across to cash in on bargains, just like they have in the past.

Instead of stepping back into the mess they’ve created and making good on their financial commitments, Target chose to protect itself from taking responsibility for a lousy business strategy, and for causing a huge ripple effect on the Canadian economy.

Shameful…and I hate them for it.

It’s all my fault

cropsI have a confession to make – I’m to blame for everything.

You see, when I shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, I want only the best, ripest, and freshest produce for my family.  Because I only pick the best, freshest and ripest, the rest of the fruit gets left behind and is eventually thrown out by the store.  I don’t want it, and I won’t pay for it, so they have to get rid of it.

Because this is how I shop, the store owners tell their suppliers not to give them any old, bruised, marked, or otherwise ‘unattractive’ product.  The suppliers comply.  It’s about me.  I’m paying, so they have to do what I want.

Now, the supplier is going to go back to the farmer.  He’s going to tell the farmer not to pick anything that has a mark on it, is bruised, or has signs of insects or other natural diseases.  The farmer has to comply, since the supplier won’t buy it from him otherwise.

The farmer, faced with fields of growing crops, needs to yield as much perfect produce as he can, or he’ll go broke.  I won’t buy anything sub-par for my family, so the grocery store won’t buy anything sub-par from the supplier, who won’t buy anything sub-par from the farmer….you get the idea.

Standing out in an open field, exposed to the elements, the farmer has few choices, since his crops are what feeds his family.  He needs to ensure that everything he grows can be sold, otherwise he’s growing nothing but debt.

With few options, the farmer employs the help of chemical sprays to ensure his crops look perfect.  It’s my fault.  I’m the guy standing at the road-side stands, checking each cob of corn for worms.  I’m not bringing those nasty bugs home to my family, so I guess I’m willing to have the corn sprayed, even if that’s not a conscious decision at the time.

McDonalds is my fault too.  Sorry.  Sometimes I’m in a hurry, or just too lazy to cook.  I asked for quickly prepared food – so quick in fact, that I can drive up to a window and have it handed to me, hot and salty within a minute.  I told McDonalds that this is how I want my food, so they complied.  I know it’s not healthy, but sometimes I just need to scarf down some grub while I’m on the run – and if pushed I’d say that I sometimes really crave the taste of a Big Mac.

The big-box stores?  You know it – me again.  I needed variety, long hours and cheap prices for all those toaster ovens, back massagers and iPhones. Sure, there were little stores that had them, but what a pain in the butt, having to drive from store to store.  And I didn’t know when they were open or if they had good prices.

I know, I should have supported the local business owner, but heck, who has time for that?  When I need a left-handed spindle crank, I can’t risk going to a store that doesn’t have it in stock and in 3 colours.  Nope – big box is the way to go.  I don’t know why that strip mall near my house looks so deserted though.  Must be the economy.

Although I’m not a photographer, I’m also responsible for the paparazzi attacks on celebrities.  I just can’t get enough of those tabloid magazines while standing in line at the grocery store.  A 3-headed baby that sings like Elvis?  Are you kidding?  Who’s got the latest ‘baby bump’, and who looks worse in a bathing suit? I crave this stuff.  Because I do, the photographers will do almost anything to get the picture that will entice me buy their magazine.

I was probably the one responsible for Princess Diana’s tragic death.  Can’t get enough of the Royals – I sent those photographers on motorcycles to capture an image of Lady Diana stepping out with her new beau.

See, the thing is, I would love to blame the farmers, or the fast-food places or the big box stores for how they’ve poisoned and cheapened our planet – they’re an easy target.  In the end though, it was me, the consumer, who decided to exercise the greatest power I had.  I gave them my business.  My money.  I told them, through my humble purchasing decisions what I wanted, and they complied.

So, I want to confess.  It’s my fault these things are the way they are.  I was the one making decisions that landed us where we are today.  I hope you can all forgive me.

Anything you’d like to get off your chest?

The Bank Note

Have you ever really looked at your bank statement?  Charges for service, convenience, withdrawals, writing cheques, paying bills, etc.  This is our money, and we’re being charged to get it, use it, or move it around.  Great gig if you can get it!

I was looking mine over a while back, and found a bunch of vague fees and charges for various things that I didn’t understand.  So, I called up my bank with a few questions.

Thank you for calling ‘Monolith Bank’. This is Patty.  How can I help you?”

Hi, Patty.  I was just looking at my latest bank statement, and saw that there are were bunch of miscellaneous charges on it, adding up to over $25.”

“…Yes..?

Well, since I don’t write more than one cheque per month, don’t use my overdraft protection, or really do anything other than have money come in and go out, I don’t know what these charges are for.”

What is it you’re not sure about with these charges?”  Patty asked, showing early signs of frustration.

Since you feel that you need to take this money from my account without my approval, I should at least know why, right?  I want you to explain each one of these charges to me”.

We can’t do that”, she explained.

Well, if you can’t tell me what these are, I’m not paying them”, I tried to say as evenly tempered as I could.

We can’t explain them all.  It would take too long.  I’ll go ahead and reverse the charges on your latest statement”.

Really? Thanks! I’ll call you again next month.  Thanks, Patty.” Then I hung up quickly.

Maybe I won that little battle, but I know I’m losing the war.  You can’t beat the banks.

During a radio segment on business earlier this week, the announcer noted that a major Canadian bank posted it’s quarterly earnings (profit).  This bank made over $1 billion dollars in a 3 month period.  Wow!  Many countries don’t have this kind of GDP.  That’s an astounding number, and makes you wonder just how fat the bank is.

In the same sentence, the radio expert noted that since the earnings were slightly less than they expected, the bank announced that they would immediately lay off over 1,000 employees.

Huh?  Did I miss something?  A bank makes over a billion dollars in 3 months, but because they didn’t make as much as they thought, they’d send 1,000 families into financial crisis.

Here’s another thing that doesn’t seem to make sense either; loans.  If you need money, you probably don’t have it, or you wouldn’t need it in the first place, but to get a loan, you need to show that you don’t need it, or they won’t give it to you.

Then, if the bank gods look favourably on you and decide to allow you to borrow, the poorest will pay the most for that loan.  Again, if you’re better off, the loan costs less, but if you’re on hard times, they’ll charge you more.

Now, I’m no fan of the ‘occupy movement’, and I certainly don’t subscribe to a socialist view on the world, mostly because it’s not realistic or attainable.  As long as there are people, some will always rise to greatness and some will always fall to destitution.  It’s as sure to happen as the sun coming up tomorrow.

But at some point, you have to wonder what it would take for these financial giants to stop the ludicrous blood-letting that it puts its customers through.

Over the next few months, a bunch of my former coworkers will discover their employment fate as my old company winds down operations in Canada.

This has become a common tale lately, as other companies announce downsizing and layoffs just ahead of the Christmas Holiday season.  We’ll likely see more announcements in the new year after the holiday seasons’ tallies are completed.

When a company loses money consistently for a period of time and there’s no immediate rebound on the horizon, you end up in this predicament.  It’s just economics.  And it sucks!

I hope that business leaders faced with these decisions, really dive into the real cost of downsizing, and it’s impact not only on the emotions and finances of its employees, but also the larger effect of what happens as a cascade effect on the economy as a whole.

In 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would start paying his employees a princely sum of $5 per day, pretty much doubling the average wage of the day.  This accomplished 2 things for Mr. Ford:

  1. It reduced attrition.  Losing skilled workers was very expensive from a retraining standpoint, and it slowed production
  2. It meant that once the other manufacturing sectors caught on, people could afford to buy his cars

This thinking revolutionized the manufacturing sector, and gave birth to the American middle class.

I’m not suggesting that companies like Sears suddenly decide that if they double the wages of their workers, things will get better for them.  The concept of maintaining a working class, however, becomes a fundamental necessity in order to provide a source of income for itself.  It’s a bit selfish, I guess, but if people are out of work, they’ll stop buying from you.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There are other jobs out there, and when you get thrown into the ocean from a burning ship, you might be surprised at how good it feels.  Most will get picked up by a passing boat.  With any luck, it’ll be a luxury liner, and not a garbage scow.

As I said earlier, I’m no economist, and I’m certainly not a captain of industry – minds greater than mine are in control.  That doesn’t mean though, that I don’t have a voice or options.

Patty can expect a call again soon, I can move my money to a fee-free financial institution, and when I’m out shopping later today, I might even check my lottery ticket.

Fingers crossed!

Oh Service, Where Art Thou?

Because I’ve been the ‘stay at home’ Dad lately, I’ve been doing a lot of the day to day shopping, and as a result, inspiration for my rants blogs have had a common theme.  Sorry about that.  This one had been rolling around in the ‘draft’ bucket for some time, since it keeps coming across as really preachy and not ‘light’, breaking my first rule of blogging.

Anyway, with all that rambling and apologizing, here goes…

We all have horror stories about lousy customer service.

I spent some time in the Customer Service world, initially in the hotel business, then in sales and working with retail stores.  I don’t know if this qualifies me as an expert; in fact, anyone who ever sat in a restaurant or bought something at a store is as much an expert on the topic.

You’d think that given the poor economy, businesses would make a special effort at trying to improve the customer experience.  You’d think.  The economic slow down has not only not improved customer service, but it’s also made the average shopper a lot less patient.

We, the almighty discretionary spenders, have short fuses, expect more for our dollars, and demand a better interaction with staff.  We’re not looking for perfection – even mediocre service is often considered acceptable, so it shouldn’t be that hard to please us.

So, why is it that  we’re regularly met with apathetic, un-knowledgeable, and downright stupid retail and service experiences?

I had an awful experience at a major retail store which is now closed, not surprisingly.

It was just before Christmas, and I was out shopping with my wife and 2 kids who were young, but school-aged.  While in the store, I saw some small gift items that I decided to purchase for my staff as Christmas gifts.  I’m such as swell guy!

this particular store was in a mall, but was one of those large anchor stores that had multiple floors – quite large.

I needed a number of these gifts – too many to carry, so along with the stuff we were already buying and towing two kids behind, I needed to get a shopping cart or basket of some kind.  I headed over to one of the entrances where they corralled the carts.  Keep in mind that this was a fully enclosed store, and shopping carts would not fit through the exit barricades.

When I got to the shopping cart area, I found that they required money to ‘unlock’ them. 

The idea behind forcing customers to ‘rent’ shopping carts so we can buy things in a store, just so they can ensure the carts are put back is a whole other blog, and one of the stupidest things ever invented.  The really ridiculous thing about this was that the carts in this particular store couldn’t physically be taken out in the first place, so why would they need a quarter for me to get one?

I reached into my pocket and found out that I only had 3 dimes.  My wife didn’t have any change either.  In fact, we had no other cash with us at all, planning to use debit cards for our purchases.

Now I had to stand in line at the only cashier aisle that was open – there were 4 aisles, but only one cashier on duty, another issue with lousy service.  By this time my patience was wearing thin, my wife had this look like ‘please don’t make a scene’, and the kids were starting to get fidgety.  Fidgety kids are bad!

Finally, I got to the cashier, and told her that I needed to exchange 3 dimes for a quarter (and an nickel) for the shopping carts that shouldn’t require any money in the first place.

Oh, our carts require a Looney“.

For those of you not from Canada, a Looney is our $1 coin, which replaced the $1 bill a while ago.  It’s called the ‘Looney’ because it has the image of a Loon on it.

Exasperated, I gave her a look like I was about to go postal.  The elderly couple who had just made their purchase and were picking up their parcels offered me a Looney.

No, thank you“, I politely said.  “I want the store to get me a shopping cart, so I can buy things from them“, loudly enough for everyone within a 100 yard radius to hear.

The young lady at the cash register was starting to look nervous.

I turned my attention back to her. I don’t have a dollar.  I want you to give me a shopping cart so I can put things in it.  That’s not too much to ask, is it?”

I did feel for her – it wasn’t her fault, and I was trying hard not to blame her.

Customer Service can unlock them for you, if you like.  Okay, then.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

Good.  Get Customer Service to unlock one for me, then.

You’ll have to go and ask them to do it for you“.

I have to go ask them?”  I was furious by this point.  Normal people would have just walked out of the store, but  as you probably know by now, I’m not normal.  I had an axe to grind.Where is Customer Service, then?

The Customer Service desk is up on the second floor, at the far end of the store“.

Insert an appropriate expletive here.

Let me summarize;  I went to the store to buy things.  I needed a cart, but the store had them locked up, and were charging money for me to ‘borrow’ one – one that could not possibly leave the store anyway.  Then, after having to stand in line to get change, finding out that I was lacking the cash on hand, I was then forced to leave everything, go up the escalator to the complete opposite side of the store just to ask for a cart.

What would you do?

There’s an old marketing rule that explains the economics of customers;  It costs 7 times more to get a new customer than it does to keep the customers you already have.  That means that losing a customer costs you big time.  Keeping a customer is dirt cheap.

Here’s some free advice for business owners and managers that will easily and inexpensively help you keep your customers, and grow your business – take it or leave it.  I’m sure you all have many more ideas:

  • Train your staff.  We shouldn’t have to track down a store employee to ask a question, only to find out that they don’t work in that department, don’t have a key for that locked up display case, or don’t know enough about the products they sell.  I had a business owner once tell me that they didn’t spend time training their staff because the turn-over rate was too high.  So, in essence, he was saying he didn’t train his staff because they might leave.  What if he never trained them but they stayed?
  • Empower your staff.  Make each employee the manager of the moment.  Give them the power to make things right with the customer if there’s a complaint.  Don’t make us wait for the manager all the time.
  • Hire the attitude, train the skill. Almost everyone can learn how to run a cash register.  That’s a trainable skill.  What you can’t train is the attitude of the employee.  Find people who want to work with people, who have an upbeat attitude and have a passion for their work.  You can train everything else they need for the job.
  • Make it easy to shop.  Hand out baskets or carts when customers arrive.  Why do you think Walmart is so successful?  They hand you a shopping cart as soon as you walk through the doors.  Make your staff park away from the store front – give the premium spots to the customers.
  • Improve your image.  Keep aisles open and uncluttered, replace burned out bulbs, keep the business clean.  By the way – vacuuming at the end of the day, while customers are still shopping is just rude.  Stop it! Enforce appropriate, consistent attire for your staff, and for Pete’s sake, don’t let them stand outside the front doors on their smoke break!
  • Stock and Price your products.  Few things are more frustrating than finding an item, but having no idea how much it costs, or not finding an advertized item at all.  A major US grocer did a study on abandoned shopping carts – carts that had items in them but the shopper left the store.  They looked at where the carts were abandoned in the store. There were 2 main reasons people walked out;  1- the item they were looking for was out of stock, and 2 – the items were not priced.
  • Be a gracious host. Think of every shopper as a guest in your own home.  Say ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’.  Offer a welcoming environment.  In restaurants, offer water or coffee, give them the menus and ask if they would like anything to start while they’re deciding.  When they’re finished, thank them for their business.
  • Hurry up!  Don’t ever make people wait to give you money.  Speed up the cash lines, or get back to the table in a restaurant to pick up the check payment – once people have made their purchase decision, or have eaten their meals, they want to leave.  Don’t make them wait.
  • Follow up.  If you sell big ticket items like furniture or appliances, send a thank you note to your customer. They sell thank you cards in bulk at the dollar store.  We purchased custom made furniture for our house that cost thousands of dollars – no follow up, no thank you note, no anything.  At the same time, we bought an inexpensive coffee table from another place and got a nice letter in the mail thanking us, and a discount coupon for our next visit.

I think you’d agree that these are simple enough to do.

Now that I’ve had my little rant about service personnel (mostly management), I have to point out how poorly we, the customers, treat the front-line workers.  We too often treat these hard working people as ‘non-humans’ with angry rants, rude conduct, and complete disrespect.

At what point did it become okay to treat other human beings like pieces of garbage?

I was waiting in a service center, where they rented vehicles.  A man and his wife came in from the pouring rain, to be greeted by a nice, young, very pregnant woman behind the counter.  Turns out, the man booked a rental, but at the wrong location, and had to now drive about 20 miles to the other location.  It was completely his fault, but he was so angry, that he threatened to kill the lady behind the counter if he drove all that way and his rental wasn’t available. She handled the situation like a pro, though.

Anyone who calls themselves a good person, then treats a service worker like a piece of trash is a hypocrite, and needs to have their moral compass realigned.  I’m sure there’s a lot of you out there who would like to do the realigning.

How about we all treat each other a little better.  Your waiter, server, customer service rep, cashier, or whatever, has their own share of junk going on in their lives.  Let’s give them a break if they forget to bring the glass of water you ordered, for Pete’s sake – it’s not the apocalypse.

For the service staff, and in particular, the service management, think from the perspective of the customer more often.  Make notes of what bugs you when you are being served less than professionally, then adopt the fix in your own work environment.  Conduct business with the focus on the 98% of the great customers, and not on the 2% that will rip you off.

Maybe then we’d all relax and enjoy work and play a bit more. We could all use a huge dose of that, right?

Sorry about the rant – sometimes you just can’t avoid it.

Oh, by the way, I did end up buying the Christmas items, but I wrote a very direct note to the executive of the company.  I never did hear back from them, though.

Loco for local

One of the things I love about summer, aside from the obvious stuff like not being cold all the time, are the little roadside stands that sell fresh fruit and vegetables. The veggies all probably come from the same farms as they do for the big grocery stores, but we feel better about the road-side stands for some reason.

There’s something about stopping on the way home and picking up some fresh corn or tomatoes on the side of the road, trading actual dollars for goods that connects you with the local growers that’s different than getting the same produce from the grocery store.

There’s something even better than fresh produce at a road-side stand.  Going into a local business and having the owner know you.  Nothing says ‘Ego Stroking’ like the store owner remembering you from your last visit. 

“Hey, how did that spindle rotor work out for you?  Did you remember to torque it counter-clockwise?”

“Yeah.  It worked perfectly.  Thanks for the help.”

Wow!  He remembered me!  Now I’m hooked.

There’s a little Chinese food place near our home that has changed hands more than a rental car, but the current owners are awesome.  I’ve only bought food there about a half-dozen times in the past year – clearly not enough to even keep the lights on, but for some reason the owner knows me by name – it’s like she’s some sort of Chinese Food Savant.  Eerie sure, but very cool.

Picking up steaks at the local butcher is a total rush for me.  The power of deciding exactly which cut of meat will land on my grill and then be served to my family and friends is a total trip.  You can’t deny that choosing each cut of meat after a consultation with your butcher on what would be best for the event is much more fun than standing over one of those chest fridges at the grocery store, battling with shopping carts over a pre-determined packaged hunk of meat.

We’ve been doing some cosmetic updating in our house, and I’ve found myself picking up small items at a local hardware store instead of my usual 15 minute drive to the big box stores that have everything under the sun for any project.

It’s one of those stores that you might see in a small town, where they carry a little bit of everything – barbeque parts, household cleaners, paint, plumbing supplies, building materials, even a gift section.  I don’t know how they pack all that stuff into such a small space – you could wander the tiny store for hours, finding new items around every corner.

Today, I was in again, getting some light switch covers and I got into a conversation with the owner, who was thanking every single customer for shopping there.

“We’ve been here since 1979”, he would proudly say. “Thank you for supporting your local hardware store business”.

He only recently bought it, but he was banking on the history of the store to strike a chord with his customers. With 18 hour work days, his young children help out at the store, manning the cash register, or helping lost customers.  He’s taken only one day off work since opening last fall.  Who has that kind of work ethic?

There is a large chain hardware store coming to the neighbourhood in the next few months, literally a stone’s throw from his little business.

I’ve always been a total sucker for the underdog, and I wish this David well as he battles Goliath.

I know we sometimes complain about high prices in these convenient stores (or convenience stores), but that’s the point isn’t it?  It’s convenient, so you pay a little more.  There’s no way these ‘little guys’ can match what those big box stores sell items for, given their limited buying power and size.  The difference is, it’s helping out your neighbour and maybe giving a job to a young person just starting out.

Something else that deserves a bit of our attention are kids who are looking for simple work – lemonade stands (yes, they do still exist), cutting grass, or shoveling the driveway.

Most of the winter I’m praying for some kid to come and shovel my driveway for me!  For 20 bucks, I can stay toasty warm, save my back and legs and help a kid get healthy, and dream of one day being the next big business entrepreneur.

That’s what I call a ‘win/win’.

I’ve got nothing against large chain stores.  In fact, most of my dollars still end up there, and I won’t be cutting up my store credit cards any time soon.  They do an excellent job of offering competitive pricing, bright clean aisles, and tons of selection, but if all I need is a box of screws or a pound of hamburger, I’m going to try the local independent business first.

So, here’s a challenge to all of us.  The next time you need a bottle of ketchup for the hot dogs, or a paint brush for your home project, or have some industrious neighbour kid knocking on your door offering to clear your sidewalk, consider how in small ways, keeping things local might just be the best thing you can do.

The Awkward Shopper

I’ve been out doing back-to-school shopping with my kids.

Now that they’re older, with one in university and one in her last year of high school, the old list has changed a bit.  No more backpacks and colored pencil cases.  Now it’s modular shelving and office chairs.

We still managed to drop almost a hundred bucks at an office supply store, getting stocked up on extra paper, binders and pens, just for old times sake.

Today’s shopping was with my wife and daughter – my son, thankfully, was spared (and we were from him) from being subjected to ladies fashion and shoe stores.

While they happily browsed racks and racks of various sizes and styles of outfits, I was in charge of purse-holding, and rack leaning.  The rack leaning becomes a fine art after about 20 minutes of standing next to your ladies while they hold up outfits and say “‘what do you think about this one?”.

Leaning on the rack is the only thing that keeps you from falling over altogether, since these stores are clearly designed as a shopping marathon, and not a shopping leisure event.  No comfy couches, no televisions, no coffee machines.  This is ALL business, mister!

The endless line of clothes that dizzy the eye and the hours of standing on your feet, trying to stay engaged in the shopping process is not the worst of these outings, though.  It’s not even heading to the cashier with an armful of garments to hand over your credit card, or holding the purse – does any guy know how to hold a purse properly?  Really – I’m asking.

The big challenge is knowing where not to look.  Wandering eyes for any man in a ladies clothing store has to be the trickiest part of the process.  Standing there in the store, holding up another rack of clothes (hopefully not underwear), you have to refocus your eyes so that you don’t slip into unconsciousness.

It’s during this ‘refocusing’ that things can get dicey.  You look out, further than the rack directly in front of you, trying to recalibrate your vision, when you realize that you are looking directly at a woman holding up some slinky little number against herself.  This is coincidentally enough, the exact moment that she catches your nonspecific gaze at her.

Nothing can feel more creepy for either parties.  You’re trying your hardest to quickly look away, like you were never looking at her in the first place (which you really weren’t), and she, I assume, realizes that there’s a creepy dude staring at her while she sizes up outfits.

Awkward.

If you’re really lucky, you might catch the eye of another poor male soul, trying his best to look natural in this most unnatural of settings.  There’s a common bond in these unspoken connections – brothers in arms, fighting the good fight for the sake of our precious relationships.

There’s sometimes a silent nod – ‘Hey, brother, I feel your pain.  Hang in there.  You’re taking one for the team’. Somehow, we find comfort behind those desperate glances.

At least we know that we’re not the only creepy stalker dudes hanging out near the undergarments.

Of course, when your lady heads to the change rooms, there’s a whole other level of awkwardness going on.  Now, you’re standing outside the change rooms where ALL the women come out to get opinions on their finds.  You don’t know whether to quickly look away, or give a thumbs up on what they’re wearing.  You’re busted – no way out of it.

That’s one area of the shopping process that you can’t skip out of either – they want your feedback.  They need your feedback.  So, you have to standby and wait, again trying to look natural, leaning against something you shouldn’t be leaning against, hoping that when you hear that change room door open, it’s for you.

If the people who design ladies apparel stores were smart, they’d set up ‘Man Cave’ zones, where we could be within sight lines of our lovely shoppers, but sit in comfort – maybe they could have a TV set up somewhere – heck it doesn’t even have to be on a sports station – the Weather Channel would be better than the alternative.

I know this all sounds rather sexist, but I tell you, it won’t work in a Men’s store, because men don’t shop – they buy.  We pride ourselves not on the great purchase, but the great speed at which we made the purchase.

We’re not in there long enough for anyone to get sore feet or stand awkwardly against a rack of ties.  And we don’t try things on, either.

“Hmmm.  This plain white shirt seems okay, and it comes in large.  I’ll take it”.  Done.

When we get home, and put it on, it might fit – it might not.  If it doesn’t, that’s okay, because the old one was perfectly good – just a couple of stains.  We’ll just keep wearing the old one, kind of like our underwear.

It’s a wonder that the fashion industry hasn’t figured this all out yet.