Posted by: emjb | December 12, 2004

Good business

Every now and then I appreciate how much of my parents’ ways of looking at the world I carry around. Today I went into a local hardware store looking for something, and the place was a mess. The staff wasn’t surly, just indifferent. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to the store’s layout, but worse, the shelves hadn’t been straightened in what looked like weeks. In the back there were boxes overturned with merchandise spilling out, so that me and the older woman who were looking through kitchenwares had to step over and around plastic tubes that rolled everywhere (a lawsuit waiting to happen). This in a store that, like most little stores in New York, was nothing more than a long narrow room with high shelves, hard enough to navigate when it’s tidy.

Two guys up front were sort of helping customers, but not really. They were teenagers, too young to be running a store by themselves.

I couldn’t help thinking what I would do if it were my store, especially if I were a small business with places like Lowe’s and Home Depot breathing down my neck. I’d whip the staff into shape and get them to clean, organize, and dust the merchandise. I’d have someone working there who spoke Hebrew, and maybe Spanish too. I’d have a manager type there to keep an eye on the staff, especially on a busy weekend. In short, I’d run it like my parents ran their business.

My parents owned a small chain of oil and lube shops, and did all right for themselves. The shops they took over usually had filthy lobbies and filthier garages, no place for customers to sit down or use the restroom, and sullen or criminal-looking mechanics. My mom put her decorating skills to work making a comfortable waiting area with chairs, magazines, a coffee machine, a clean restroom, and pictures on the walls. My dad and brother made sure there was always a manager around. All the guys were required to be clean cut. Every service and its price was clearly listed on the invoice that the customer saw, instead of scribbled on a receipt. The garages were kept clean, and customers could watch their cars being worked on and ask questions.

The customers loved it, and women especially. They would drive miles, past cheaper and bigger shops, to get their oil changed there. My brother and my dad took customer service seriously, and were fair and honest to a fault. And I absorbed that ethic. That is how a business should be run. They didn’t grovel before customers; I saw my dad throw more than one jerk out when they started cursing and insulting the staff, or trying to get something for free. But until a customer crossed that line, they were always treated with courtesy.

The little hardware store on my block may be run by someone who just doesn’t care about things like this. For now, it has no real competition. Maybe the owner can afford to run it sloppily, because it’s still a long way to go to the nearest Lowe’s. The sad thing is, that won’t always be true. And a place that could have helped hold a local community together will be just another casualty, another empty storefront taking up space.

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