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In Retailing, Every Idea Dies Yet Lives On

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus wasn’t talking about shopping when he claimed that change was the nature of reality, but the American retail landscape has proved his point nicely all the same.

In my lifetime I have seen the chain stores kill the independents, the malls obliterate the downtowns, the big-box stores clobber the malls, Kmart conquer everything and Walmart conquer Kmart. I have seen the rise of mail order, the fall of the Sears catalog and warehouse stores demanding you pay for the privilege of shopping with them – not to mention Amazon with free shipping, Amazon Prime with free shipping, and now Amazon with almost-instant delivery.

In retailing everything dies and nothing dies. Most people think of the old general store as a relic of the days when you had to hand-crank your telephone before you could use it. But in Norwich, Vermont, Dan & Whit’s Country Store is alive and well, dispensing everything from milk to mouse traps under the slogan, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Lots of old downtowns are thriving with a combination of eateries, night spots, boutiques and shared-workspace storefronts, even as the malls that supposedly killed those downtowns rebrand themselves as entertainment centers. Department stores are dead, but just a few blocks from Trump Tower in Manhattan, Bloomingdale’s is still filling the streets with its Brown Bags – not just the paper version, but actual plastic (PVC, if you please) editions that are supposed to make a fashion statement. And if you are anywhere near Bend, Oregon, you can visit the last Blockbuster Video in the Lower 48, now a locally owned operation that is reportedly turning a profit even in the age of Netflix and Redbox.

Local toy stores supposedly died out long ago. But I still seek out gifts for children I know at specialty shops that focus on educational or unusual items, while the iconic mass-marketer Toys R Us is in its final agony of going-out-of-business sales.

When we think of the dynamism of the American economy, we tend to focus on sexy stuff like technology and medicine and jet aircraft and high-tech farming. But if you think about it, retailing – the good old-fashioned shopkeeping practice of buying stuff cheaply in bulk and selling it in small quantities at enough of a markup to keep the doors open – is absolutely Darwinian in its endless creative destruction. New business models regularly evolve to supplant old ones, and many ideas have had their moment only to be displaced by the next big thing.

Yet so many old ideas survive alongside newer ones, albeit sometimes in modified or more limited forms. As a boy, my grandfather had a pushcart on New York’s Lower East Side. Now the pushcarts are gone – unless you want a salty pretzel or a hot dog or a buttered roll and some coffee on a Midtown street corner, where they remain to this day.

Dan & Whit’s is far from the only general store surviving in Vermont and other rural communities. The Sears catalog is gone, but my mailbox is regularly stuffed with many other catalogs that almost always go directly to recycling. Kmart is almost a retail nonfactor, but Dollar General and others are doing just fine serving much the same market. Borders was supposed to kill my neighborhood bookstore, but guess which one is still here?

President Trump has recently directed his ire at Amazon, possibly because he finds its CEO Jeff Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post) personally annoying. The president’s griping at Amazon is misdirected. Not only does Amazon generate and collect many millions in tax revenues, but its package-delivery business provides crucial volume to the U.S. Postal Service, and – despite claims from people who know little about how businesses actually function – not at unreasonably low rates.

But Amazon, too, has to share the retail landscape with everyone else. The quintessential online market is building out its own physical presence, not just with acquisitions like Whole Foods but also with “pop-up” Amazon-brand stores. So now I can go to a store to shop online. I don’t know why I would want to do that, but Amazon gives me the option. If they didn’t, someone else would, and some already do.

My kids were born at the height of the Toys R Us boom. I will never get the chance to take a grandchild there, but that will be OK. There’s always Amazon. Or I can just trust that if I need it, Dan & Whit’s will have it.

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