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‘Big Box’ Stores? Sure; But Not Always

The Good Life

The pandemic changed my shopping habits. While mostly imprisoned at home, I learned to value the online convenience of Walmart, Staples, Amazon, the “big box” outfits.

It’s not just big stuff. I ran out of printer ink cartridges. Rather than drive 20-30 miles and risk the stores being out of our cartridges, I tickled my computer. The cartridges were mailed here with no additional effort and at the same price as in the store.

While I was at it, I searched for a teeny tiny thing, a package of plastic gizmos that one places around toothpaste tubes. They slide upward to push the paste toward the nozzle. I hate the finger-wrinkles that cause me to throw away tubes with much paste squished inside, inaccessible. The gizmo’s cost $4.97. I was not about to drive to a store just to get those. I lumped them in with the ink cartridges.

For me, “big box” stores have value in their large inventories and low prices. They also employ local people. That counts with me.

But for mowers, appliances, car repairs, tools, things that require service, I look to stores where I know pretty much everybody who works there, by sight if not by name.

One “old reliable” is Dunlap Lawn and Garden, just outside DuBois and Brookville.

They know me there.

Usually, it’s “Hiya! Did your sore back heal up OK?” or, more likely, grinning, “Did your parole officer let you out this week?”

I would have bought our new riding mower there in any event.

But I was even more impressed when I overheard Chris Irwin, Dunlap’s Brookville manager, pass up a sale.

That customer works with clients who have considerable acreage, according to what I gleaned. He bought trimmers or such, and then picked up a shiny new battery-powered leaf blower.

“I can use one of these!” he said, waggling the blower enthusiastically.

“Well, maybe not,” Chris replied. He said the battery’s life is fine for cleaning a garage or shagging yard leaves.

But, “Turn it on, hold the throttle on, and the battery will be dead” before the end of an hours-long commercial job, he told the customer. It will not be recharged in time to get to the next job. It’s not suited to that customer’s needs.

The customer put the blower back on the shelf and said thanks. He’ll keep his corded blowers.

When I told Chris that what he did had impressed me, his reply captured the attractiveness of places like Syktich or Brockway Appliance, Ace Hardware, Sigel Automotive, Cooper Tire, Medicine Shoppe and more mom-and-pop operations.

“I would have liked to sell that to him, sure,” he said. “But I want him to come back — not just this year, but for five years, ten years.”

Building trusting relationships is “the only way we (small businesses) survive,” he said.

Small businesses don’t always have the lowest prices. They can’t match the giants’ economies of scale. But they usually do have fair prices — and the sales person is often also the service manager or equivalent.

When I put a mower onto a trailer, haul the mower in for service, then retrieve it, the last thing I need is the hassle and lost time of having to make a return trip. To keep me coming back, a small business has to do it right the first time or, if mistakes happen as they sometimes do, make it right. That trumps the $20-$50 I might save at the “big box” store.

Sigel Auto repairs our out-of-warranty cars and trucks. They tell me when age and mileage suggest we should trade vehicles. They could make money continuing to repair our dying ones. They will forgo some of that business while a newly bought vehicle is under dealer warranty.

But when the warranties expire, our business returns there, because of the service, because of the … well, there is this.

I recommended them to a friend. A few days later, I stopped in. They reached for a “copy” of my friend’s bill and pretended to hand it to me.

“He said you would pay for it!” they chortled.

Yep. Sure. We all chuckled.

That irreverence connotes relationships. At big box stores, work shifts vary widely. At mom-and-pop stores, time after time, Chris and Megan, Wally and Rae Lynn or Karen are behind the counters and Ryan, Don, Nate or others are there to say hello.

When the people who wait on you are the same folks, again and again, relationships thrive. And to boot, we get needed doses of life’s best medicine, a good laugh.

I shop where I can get what I need at prices I can afford and with service that suits me.

That brings me back to small businesses. They might pass up the profit on a sale today because they want me back, for years or decades.

I like that.

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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: notniceman9@gmail.com

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