Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2003 / 24 Kislev, 5764

Greg Crosby

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Consumer Reports

All Roads Lead to Box Stores | A cross country road trip was something I wanted to do since I was a teenager and now I had my chance. My wife and I loaded up on maps and travel guides from the auto club and began putting together a list of "must see" locales. I plotted a large roundtrip loop — we wanted to see as many new places as we could without having to retrace our steps coming back. It turned out to be a magnificent adventure for us, filled with discovery and wonder. America the beautiful — you bet it is!

The terrain, weather, and yes, even some of the people are still as varied from region to region as, I suppose, they must have always been. Regional dialects, however, are fast fading away, I'm sorry to report. No doubt television has had a hand in that. Teenagers and children now sound virtually the same in every state in the union and that is a pity. For some, this may seem no big deal. Some might simply accept it as a natural course of evolution. Some may even applaud it as progress. For me, it's yet another small bit of innocent charm vanishing into the past.

And local accents aren't the only things disappearing throughout the country. The downtown shopping streets of small town America are just about gone now thanks to Wal-Mart and the other box store chains. This, certainly, is no breaking news bulletin. I've known this was happening for some years of course, as we all have, reading and hearing about it through the media, but let me tell you, when you actually see it with your own eyes, up close and personal, the severity of our loss really hits home. As we drove through state after state it soon became easy for us to foresee what would be coming around the bend. If we passed a Wal-Mart we knew what to expect when we got to the next town — vacant stores in what was once the heart of town. Small businesses shut down, unable to compete with the deep discount pricing of the mega store. Conversely, if we came into a town first and saw a distressed main shopping street, we knew we would find a Wal-Mart lurking just a few short miles down the road. It never failed. It couldn't have been more predictable if there had been a road sign reading: "Caution: Box Store Ahead."

The sad news coming this holiday season of New York's once prestigious toy store, FAO Schwarz, filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and desperately seeking a buyer only underscores our depressing discoveries as we traveled through small town America. FAO blames its demise on the fierce competition from discounters such as Wal-Mart, Target, and of course, Toys "R" Us. So you see, the box stores are not only cutting into the small businesses in small towns, they're killing the specially stores in big cities too.

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The fact is it's impossible for a small mom and pop store or specialty retailer to undercut the price of an item carried by a mammoth 3,000 store chain. Another fact is the average consumer will simply not buy something at a price 20, 30 or 50% higher when they have the option to get that exact same item for less. They'd be crazy to pay more. How many of us would? Not too many, I'd guess. As easy as it is to blame the big, bad box stores, it's really the consumers who are making the choice where they will spend their money. So where does this leave the little guys? Since the Wal-Marts of the world are not going away any time soon — and besides, they're not doing anything wrong here, they're in business to make money just like the little guy — the onus falls on the specialty retailers to offer the consumers what the big chains can't, namely service and unusual or up market items.

People came to FAO Schwartz because they found stuff there that wasn't being sold anywhere else. The store stocked well-made high-quality toys and offered a level of service which wasn't available at the mass market stores. At Christmastime the place was sheer magic. They had fantastic electric train layouts that made a little boy's head swim. They had beautiful European dolls that every little girl wanted to hold. It was the best toy store in the world. And then somebody in upper management decided to compete with the mass merchants. That was the beginning of the end for FAO. They lost their specialness. They became just another store that sold Barbie — but at a higher price!

The name FAO Schwarz once conjured up a sense of magic and fun and wonder. What the management of FAO didn't understand was it wasn't the name that made the magic — it was the magic that made the name. Once the magic is gone the name doesn't mean a thing. And that goes for a lot of other businesses too.

Maybe what will ultimately save small town America will be stores that offer "specialness." Stores stocked with unusual and high-quality merchandise — things that the mass discounters don't carry. Stores stocked with friendly faces and good service. Stores that make you feel good that you came in and make you want to come back. Stores like that just might bring a little magic back to Main Street.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby