Something, possibly meaningless, but potentially very significant happened recently when Blockbuster Video packed up shop and left town.
It was big news in video-business circles, of course, a little less so to the average citizen of Stratford, but whether you care much or not, there is a message in this event that the community could probably benefit from.
I might not be the best one to discern and deliver that message, but after reporting on businesses opening and closing for 30 years, I have a few observations to offer.
A good segment of our city worries about the impact a Wal-Mart store would have on our local economy. Some predict the retail giant would deviously drain the life out of all its competitors and after they have been driven out of business, would hike their prices.
That might happen.
But does it have to?
Blockbuster obviously had its eye on doing a bit of business busting of its own when it put up a new shop within spittin' range of the well-established Video Plus Books on Ontario Street 10 years ago. A decade later, it has limped out of town, tail between its legs.
Without knowing all the ins and outs, obviously, here is my guess.
Blockbuster Stratford ran into a pretty tough competitor in John George, owner of Video Plus Books. Not a cutthroat, underhanded, win-at-any-cost competitor, but a dedicated, smart, hardworking businessman who just kept plugging away while the big chain stores - first Blockbuster and later Rogers - showed up to relieve him of a good share of his profit.
In the end, one of the big-box stores had to move, not the little guy.
Blockbuster Video probably follows to the letter all the modern tenets for how to run an efficient business. The insides of the building were operating-room spotless and neat. Its employees were all nicely decked out in cookie-cutter uniforms. There was lots of selection. Everything should have been fine.
Except for Video Plus Books across the way.
Video Plus Books is part old-time country general store, part Middle Eastern bazaar. On the shelves is something for everyone - books, CDs, movies, documentaries, old TV series, magazines. But there are also chocolate bars and popcorn, hockey cards and video games, as well as all sorts of hardware helpers such as DVD cleaners, RCA cords, etc. In other words, if you can't find what you're looking for there, then your tastes are a little too offbeat.
The shop is reminiscent of the guy who opened a general store, and threw a fit because his first three customers all asked to buy a jackknife, something he didn't carry.
"Does this look like a jackknife store to you?" he shouted at the last shopper.
Instead of trying to fit his customers to his wants, he should have been phoning up a jackknife supplier. Obviously. That, it seems to me, is what John George must be doing right.
In fact, I think he does a lot of things right. In this order.
John is at his main shop behind Swiss Chalet a lot. He's always bustling about and he talks to anyone and everyone. If he sees you considering a movie, he'll come over and tell you what he thinks of it, maybe point you in a better direction. Obviously the owner or owners of Blockbuster didn't spend time daily in the Stratford store (if they ever even heard of it.)
I don't know what the store hours actually are, but it seems as though Video Plus Books is always open. It's a nighthawk's dream come true. On the other hand, it's amazing how many small businesses are closed when they should be open. Some restaurants, for example, close on holidays or at mealtimes.
Video Plus Books always has a lot of people working the floor or the counter. They are friendly and they smile a lot. They appear to be happy in their jobs. They dress in their own clothes and don't look like robots. And they have been known to quietly reduce an overdue fine for a whining dad whose kids lost a DVD under a couch for a few days.
The bottom line, however, is that enough staff is on hand to make sure that no matter how busy it gets, customers never have to wait very long to be served. This is very important in today's manic-paced life. It is also important that staff not be on the phone to their boyfriends or girlfriends when you approach the counter and look like you're interrupting them by wanting to make a purchase. I don't see a lot of Video Plus Books employees smooching through the phones when they're supposed to be working.
Customer is Right
I get the feeling inside Video Plus Books that the employees really care whether or not I leave with what I want. They'll help me find it or order it if they don't have it. And I never get the feeling that I am not trusted. At Blockbuster, the tone was different. I visited a time or two, took out a card, but only rented a video once or twice. I can't tell you exactly why, but I think it was because I felt as though I was being watched, like I was doing something wrong just by being there. Like I was up to no good.
A young female friend told me this story.
She went into Blockbuster here one day, and was told she would have to leave her purse behind the counter. She protested and pointed to a older woman inside who was still in possession of her purse.
"You go over and take her purse, and I'll give you mine," she said. And when the counter person tried to explain, she said, "You know what? Forget it!" She walked out and never went back.
Keep Up With the Times
Before Christmas, I went into Video Plus Books and asked if they had box sets of the old Lone Ranger TV series. They do, along with dozens of sets from other old TV shows. One whole wall is devoted to TV shows from Britain. At a time when video sales are being challenged by other methods of delivering our entertainment, including the Internet, making old shows available on DVD is a way to keep people interested in this store.
Keep Your Name Out There
Who doesn't know about Video Plus Books? And yet, week after week, in every media possible, John George spends a lot of money on advertising. Why? It must bear some relationship to his ability to keep the doors open, although I realize it's a bit self-serving of me to say that.
The owner of one longtime business which closed up last year said that everything possible was done to stay open. Everything, that is, except advertise. Perhaps it's a snowball effect. As the money runs down, less is spent on advertising and business continues to fall.
An old adage says there are only two times to advertise: When business is bad and when business is good.
It seems to me that most businesses that have to close up have defeated themselves in some way or another, though it may appear on the surface that increased competition did them in. In London, at the corner of Oxford and Wharncliffe streets, there is an old-fashioned restaurant called the Paragon. I often visited in the late sixties, early seventies. It is still there today, surrounded by fast-food restaurants on all sides.
In St. Marys years ago, a large clothing chain called SAAN came into town and caused a sensation. They've been gone for a long time now. The local shopkeepers remain.
Some people have a gift for business, just as there are gifted singers, artists, hockey players and dancers. And some have no aptitude for it at all.
Wal-Mart and associated stores might open here. They might succeed or they might not. But whether they do or not will depend on how well their managers are able to make their outlets a part of the community. Success, even for them, is not guaranteed. There is nothing inherently evil about a big business, nor virtuous about a small one.
And as Video Plus Books has shown, although there is never any way, unless you're privy to their books, of knowing how well a business is ever actually doing, big doesn't necessarily mean strong, nor small, weak.
Someone suggested a while back that a good move on any business person's part might be to take John George out for dinner and pick his brain. Can Wayne Gretzky pass on his hockey skills over dinner? Maybe a few.
Find a need and fill it.
The prescription for every successful business. It never changes, whether that business is Wal-Mart or Bill's Buns and Bagels. Yes, the big-box store will automatically draw shoppers but remember Video Plus Books and the Paragon Restaurant. Surrounded by the biggest, sleekest vessels, they still manage to keep their old ships afloat, and sometimes, even win the occasional race.
Businesses can either fear the worst, prepare for it, or move on. A mom and pop coffee shop in another town, faced with the prospect of a new Tim Hortons opening next door, closed its doors before construction on the Hortons even began and moved downtown to open a bakery which is still going strong. Now that's being realistic and flexible.
I don't see any value in demonizing Wal-Mart or any big-box store. Successful businesses just get on with their job of filling a need.
It seems to work.