Business Columns & Blogs

Sometimes the old is new again

“Why it’s the Model-T Ford made the trouble, made the people wanna go, wanna get, wanna get, wanna get up and go, seven, eight, nine, 10, 12, 14, 22, 23 miles to the county seat ...Who’s gonna patronize a little bitty two-by-four kinda store anymore?”

“Rock Island,” from “The Music Man”

Who’s gonna patronize a store in the county seat when they build the Wal-Mart out by the interstate, or the big downtown store when they build the regional mall, or the mall and the nearby big-box stores when everyone can sit at home and do their shopping on the Internet?

Such is the nature of retailing, an industry perhaps more prone than any other to massive shifts in the types of companies that dominate it and in customer preferences for how and where they shop.

Tacoma, among many American cities, is all too familiar with at least one of those trends – the departure of retailing from downtown to the regional mall.

But here’s the interesting thing about this phenomenon: Those old retailing models don’t get swept away entirely. Sometimes, through adaptation, convenience or just plain nostalgia, they demonstrate considerable life and utility, even if they’ve been reduced to niches.

With that in mind, consider retailing giant Sears, which is announcing promotions and a contest to mark 17 years of its Sears Hometown Stores.

The Hometown stores, a separate operation under the Sears holding-company umbrella, are hard-goods retailers – home appliances, consumer electronics, tools and lawn and garden equipment. They don’t carry apparel, although customers can order clothing through those stores and Sears online and have purchases shipped to their homes.

The stores are typically found in smaller and rural communities, although there’s no set rule that says they have to be a minimum distance away from full-line, mall anchor Sears stores.

In this region you can find them in Enumclaw and Eatonville; around Washington, Sears has Hometown stores in communities such as Sequim, Omak, Ellensburg and Othello.

Hometown stores are owned by independent contractors who are responsible for operational and employee expenses: Sears owns the merchandise and gets paid a commission on what the store owners sell.

Chief marketing officer Keri Durkin-Reichow says the Hometown stores concept replaced Sears’ catalog stores (also found in smaller and rural towns) which the company phased out as it got out of the catalog business.

More on that in a moment. The appeal of the smaller stores with specific product lines is convenience, Durkin-Reichow says; not everyone has the time or desire to drive to the mall, especially if the mall store is hours away.

That’s what makes this story intriguing and important in understanding the retailing industry.

Those who have been around the block a time or two will recognize the Hometown concept as a reincarnation of chains like Western Auto that offered a smattering of hardware, gardening equipment, sporting goods and similar hard lines (in fact, Sears at one time owned Western Auto) and were typically found in smaller communities.

It’s a concept that should have been made extinct by shopping malls and larger specialty chains (think of what Home Depot and Lowe’s have done in hardware and home improvement).

Yet it’s not only hanging on but showing potential for growth – or at least Sears thinks it can grow. From about 100 locations initially, Sears now has 970 Hometown stores, and Durkin-Reichow says the company believes it can open 50 to 125 additional stores a year.

Sears has had considerable experience with the continuing useful life of supposedly outmoded retailing concepts. Once known primarily as a catalog merchant, Sears phased out its big print catalog in 1993. But it continues to print specialty catalogs, and in recent years has made a push back into Christmas catalogs.

And why not? While the Internet offers advantages for placing orders over mail and telephone, print catalogs are still faster and more convenient for comparison shopping, especially between different retailers.

Nor is Sears the only one discovering new life for old retailing ideas. Physical shopping was to have been done in a decade ago by the Internet, yet people still throng to bricks-and-mortar stores. Or consider the hot trend of farmers markets, which are about as old a concept as there is in retailing.

Prone to upheaval as it is, retailing will be swept by still more innovations and changes that threaten to wipe out whatever came before. Whatever the new new thing is, the new old thing can still be a viable business, for those who heed some sage advice from “The Music Man” that, when it comes to knowing what customers want, “Ya gotta know the territory.”

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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