Tis the season for nostalgia. But we are of two minds at this time of year. On the one hand, gifting seems geared to the new -- the latest gadgetry, the trending fashion, the season’s must-have books, videos and games. And we use every available digital channel to find our way to the best deals, free shipping and nearby availability. By all accounts, consumers have pretty much gone pro: armed to the teeth with digital savvy that is out-flanking retailers and advertisers and staying “ahead of the marketers” at every turn. Cross-channel, multichannel, omni-channel, every-channel, give-me-another-channel. Yep, we are all that.
On the other hand, this is also the season we immerse ourselves in comfort food media, from ritual viewings of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to my own personal project of the season -- reviewing every conceivable film and TV version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” And you can bet, my family at this point is plotting to kill Dad this Christmas. But the ironic (some say hypocritical) undercurrent of Christmas comfort media is basically anti-materialsm, and a call to reflect on deeper values of family and goodwill. Are we hypocritical? Bah! Humbug. We are just American. As our patron poet Walt Whitman sang 150 years ago in “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large I contain multitudes.)
Bur herein, for your holiday taste of that lost America of service is a true Christmas tale of monochannel retail brilliance.
“Honey, where is the plug thingy?” My wife is in full Christmas cookie-making fervor -- fueled by a desperate ambition to tear through batches of not-quite-vegan walnut crescents, vegan molasses rounds, vegan chocolate chips and some Scottish shortbread that is so not vegan, all in a night. She is hellbent on being the Santa of the cookie oven.
I already know I am playing with fire, so I tread carefully.
“Which doohickey would that be, my love?” I offer in a mild Bob Cratchit solicitation.
I can see in her eyes I am already at risk for not having translated her need without a follow-up. “The mixer needs a three-pronged outlet. Where is the adapter thingie we use in the kitchen?”
It is an old and creaky house we live in, in the thick of our Delaware city. A mile or two from the gleaming short towers of every credit card bank imaginable sits our modest track of 1920s duplexes, struggling to keep up with high-tech times with our old wiring and precious few three-pronged outlets. The ones we do have installed are running my home theater and home office. Thus, I am personally responsible for this crisis. For the kitchen we usually use a two- to-three-prong adaptor. But it has gone missing.
In desperation my wife starts trying to string together my collection of surge protectors from the dining room three-pronged outlet into the kitchen to run the mixer. I insist we go to the hardware store to get a new adaptor.
“Let’s go to Fairfax Hardware up the road.”
Fairfax is a legend in these parts and for a certain clientele. You won’t find a Web site for it. Nor will you find a mobile app for it. Google maps and Yelp have picked it up on their own, and in each you will find glowing reviews. This little independent hardware store is surrounded by major outlets of Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy, office stores and many other alternatives. But you walk into Fairfax Hardware and it feels like a Twilight Zone moment. The shelves are neat, the place clean and mildly cluttered. But there is not a sign of franchise efficiency here. In the aisles are young clerks who could easily be working at any other big-box store. But here they are in fresh button-down shirts and ties. They greet us at the door and ask what we need, just like the big-box store. But in this case they actually have good answers. In fact, in dealing with several of these youngsters it is clear they have all been well tutored in how to treat customers politely. Better still, they all know what they are talking about.
My wife is concerned that using two- to-three-prong adaptors is somehow dangerous, but they assure her otherwise. To further assure us the exceptionally well-mannered boys bring us to the owner and obvious mentor of the shop. He is not sure he has the adaptor in stock, but will have more in the morning. When we explain we are in the midst of a cookie emergency, he suggests we try next door at Walgreens. It turns out Fairfax does have the adaptor. We buy two for backup and are on our way, both of us commenting on the marvelous experience of walking into a store where the youthful clerks care, are knowledgeable, and don’t robotically try to up-sell us something.
This is only a small example of previous similar experiences at this store, which has been the go-to place for my wife since long before we married. She has had the clerks and owner of this store walk her through countless DIY projects, alerting her to projects that really require professionals and ones they think she can handle. They have been known to recommend reliable service providers in the area.
This shop has no digital savvy at all. There is nothing vaguely omnichannel about it. Aside from calling directly, I can’t check their inventory online. And yet in the middle of this store -- encased by the level of service, years of goodwill, neighborhood familiarity and sheer humanity of the experience -- I would never think of whipping out my phone to check for a better price. Their value add is so clear, so convincing, so worthy of whatever extra pennies I would spend there, I don’t even consider showrooming in these three aisles. This is a store that proves just how important it is for retail to get that one channel right before and above all others. If retailers want to know what is really broken about their models, why people have no real loyalty to their brands or experience, all they need to do is visit their own stores and then scoot over for a half hour in Fairfax Hardware.
Omnichannel? Bah! Humbug. What does any of it matter unless businesses learn there is only one true channel above all others- - the one that deals with people as people, not customers or consumers? Is it really so hard to treat people as if you know them (or want to know them) and like their being there?