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WNPR’s small business coverage elevates understanding of the challenges faced by small business, educates policy-makers, and highlights the vital role of small business to the state’s economy.

Does The Big Box Have A Future?

Harriet Jones


Big box stores are under pressure. A drastic drop in consumer spending has gone along with a shift to making purchases online. But what does all this mean for the small independent retailer? WNPR’s Harriet Jones reports, it may actually represent an opportunity for the main street mom-and-pop store.

The retail industry is in turmoil. But while big box stores come and go, some things remain the same.

This is Parsons Hardware in the Unionville section of Farmington, where Michael Parsons has been answering customer’s questions for more than 40 years, ever since he started helping out his father at the age of ten.

“Up in front we have the lawn and garden stuff so you can see it right when you come in the door. In a couple of weeks it’ll be Christmas items up here.”

In fact Michael is the fifth generation of the Parsons family to run this store, which has been open in town for 137 years.

“I think the thing that keeps people coming back is the family friendly service here, you know. You’ve got to treat people like they would like to be treated, and people who come in the store, they want to get what they want to get, not hang around waiting to get waited on.”

He’s seen the advent of the big box era. A Home Depot opened up the road in Bristol about a decade ago, and within the last few years, small independent hardware stores in Bristol and Plainville have closed. But Parsons says so far, his clientele remains loyal.

“Well, a lot of people have started out going to the Lowe’s and the Home Depots and end up coming back here.”

His customers confirm that it’s the service and the convenience that keeps them coming back. Anthony Riccucci came in looking for a replacement chuck key for his drill.

“I’m actually working at the depot place right now that’s right up the street, so I walk here and get paint and paint supplies and random parts, screws, tools. You don’t have to walk around the store for 20, 30 minutes to find what you need – it’s right here.”

And Art Gray, who’s lived in town since the 1960s, remembers a previous generation of the Parsons family.

“When his Dad used to run it, I used to do landscaping, and he opened the store on a Sunday, I’d get a bag of grass seed, have a beer with him and we’d go. But he was always open whenever you needed – he was a great guy.”

Gray says he’s convinced there has to be a place for the independent retailer.

“You know, Wal-mart and all these other big ones kinda hurt the little guy, but Mike is still here. He’ll be here for a while.”

The town of Farmington has an usually wide mix of retail. It plays host to the huge West Farms Mall on one hand, and the walk-able Farmington and Unionville centers on the other. Courtney Hendricson is Economic Development Director for the town. It’s her job to strike a balance between big national chains and small specialty retailers.

“Some towns lend themselves better to just one or the other, if they’re smaller towns or if they only have one type of feel. But because we do have the highway on and off ramps, we have that mall with big stores around it, and then we have the sort of smaller village feel, I think that just adds to our quality of life here.”

She says the trick is to recognize what’s going to work where.

“So the zoning over by the mall says a big box would fit here well, whereas the zoning in a Unionville center says a small mom and pop would fit here well.”

While Hendricson must balance the interests of both types of retail, some towns have put all their eggs in the independent basket. There’s a growing Buy Local movement encouraging support of small retailers. A national survey conducted earlier this year showed that shops in towns with a buy local campaign experienced stronger revenue growth. The survey was conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Researcher Stacy Mitchell says consumers’ buying habits really can be influenced by awareness campaigns.

“One of the biggest pieces of information I think can be a real motivator is the fact that about three times as much money stays in the local economy if you choose a local retailer over a chain.”

Some studies in fact have shown that about 15 cents of each dollar spent in a national chain store will be reinvested in the local community, whereas about 50 cents of each dollar spent in an independent retailer re-circulates locally. But as the big boxes struggle, are mom-and-pop stores also feeling the pressure of the contraction in consumer spending?

“Most local retailers should view this as an opportunity to gain share of wallet from the consumer.”

Michael Dart is a retail analyst for management consultancy Kurt Salmon, and author of the book, The New Rules of Retail. He says big box retail may not fit into people’s lifestyles quite so well as once it did.

“Big box retailers perch themselves on the outskirts of towns quite a lot and people were driving to them. And increasingly I think you’re seeing more neighborhood shopping, more convenience-based shopping, and at the same time you’ve got convenience-based ecommerce shopping where people are having a lot of goods delivered as well.”

In effect he says small neighborhood shops may be better equipped to withstand the onslaught of Internet retailing. And that onslaught is coming - a survey of holiday shopping intentions from the National Retail Federation found that 47 percent of shoppers intend to buy online this year.

For WNPR, I'm Harriet Jones.