Saturday, March 28, 2009

Trial Balloon

Blogger's Note: This is part of a long-term project I've put off for far too long. I figure if I stare at it long enough, tinker with it, poke it, it'll eventually get finished. And so it goes.

You never know who is coming to get you, Bill Benson told the crowd.

Those gathered in the immense room quieted. In this cavern where the music blared and the lights flashed and the songs echoed off the curved walls to acoustic perfection, not a whisper above Bill Benson’s voice.

“Sebastian Kresge, that great founder of Kmart, once received, as a joke, a stock certificate in the F. W. Woolworth Company, that venerable Five and Dime that discounters drove out of business,” Benson said. “His acolytes called that moment prophetic.”

“It was,” he continued. “When the first Kmart opened in 1962, they had a problem. The store’s safe wasn’t big enough to hold the day’s earnings. They had to use waste baskets to store some of the money.”

“But more prophetic was Kresge’s visit to Yellowstone National Park, years before,” Benson said. “He wrote in his biography he was nipped on the hand by a bear, because he was standing on its foot, ‘and he wanted me off,’ the man said. The bear bit him on the hand because he was in the way. Just as Wal-Mart did to Kmart in the 1990s. And just as Bil-Stor is doing to Wal-Mart now.”

“Rule is, you never know who’s coming to get you.”

“Don’t worry that people tell you you work for an evil corporation. A chain store.” Benson said. “Tell them this: It’s old news, this complaining. And it doesn’t work.”

“When Sears and Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward, started shilling their catalogs, small-town merchants sweated bullets. Swore those catalogs were the devil. Spending no money in the community. Not caring if a community withered if its citizens bought from them, not from the local stores. They staged bonfires, where catalogs were torched and burned.”

“But the catalog merchants survived. They brought to the citizens of these small towns what they wanted: Goods at a fair value. And plentiful goods, from socks to wood stoves to houses, that the local merchants wouldn’t stock, or would reluctantly order, not caring for their customer if the product took two or three months to arrive.”

“Then came the department store. Why have a dozen, two dozen stores on Main Street, when one large store, offering everything from pots and pans to dresses, would suffice? One-stop shopping is not a new concept, ladies and gentlemen. Its modern era started in the latter half of the nineteenth century. More than a hundred and twenty-five years ago, when Americans, after the Civil War, were hungry for merchandise to buy.”

Then, in 1890, came the chain stores.

The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the A&P, Woolworths. No matter where you went in the United States of America, you could find an A&P. You could find a Woolworths. And not have to struggle through store after store after store to find the products they want.

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