Marolt: Wiping out local businesses with the RedLaser
If you’ve been in the retail business for the better part of four decades and you finally decide to buy the space you’ve been operating out of because you are sick and tired of bleeding your profits off to your landlord every month, only to find after the downpayment check clears that you resent your new landlord just as much as the old one, it’s probably time to get out of business.
You now know for certain that even a landlord as benevolent as you are is not a fair landlord because he has to make his nut, too, and there just aren’t enough nuts to go around, and thus it is almost impossible to turn a profit in Aspen, by selling ski gear anymore.
Pomeroy Sports was a great business for a long time. It was a great place to shop. It was a great place to work. It was a great place to sit out in front of on a warm spring day and shoot the breeze. I know it was solid because it survived several winters of me, lubricated with beer, screwing around with mill bastard files, burning P-Tex and running expensive skis over a gigantic 25-horsepower base grinder in the repair shop during the evenings back in the ’80s. Now Pomeroy has set up shop across the street from La Cocina on Memory Lane, and that actually makes both of them and old Aspen even more perfect, even if less profitable.
I am not trying to make a case for Aspen landlords, but you have to admit they were easier to get along with 20 years ago when it was possible for a non-publicly traded worldwide retailing conglomerate to set up shop here and provide a decent living for Mom and Pop and everyone else who worked there. It’s interesting to note this because, to a large degree, the landlords now are the same landlords as then, just grayer and richer. They might be as greedy as ever, but they are not stupid. I don’t think they are driving local retailers out of business.
Put away the pitchforks, and I’ll explain. It is not only here that small retailers are having a rough go. Try to recall the last place you visited where Main Street or the shopping district was lined with thriving locally owned and operated retail shops. If you can picture it, I suggest visiting again soon before it’s gone, and please tell Mr. Rockwell’s ghost that I say “hey.” Either landlords everywhere are bent on cutting out all small retail businesses in order to replace them with nothing, or there is some other force at work.
My friend Gus, who helped run Pomeroy for about the past 20 years, showed me a tiny piece in the changed game. It’s a free smartphone app called RedLaser. You open it up and point your phone at any bar code, and it will tell you what that item costs at dozens of different places near and far. And the “far” is becoming irrelevant.
Can you charge more for a nice meal in town? Yes, because it’s Aspen. Can you charge more for a local hotel room? Yes, because it’s Aspen. Can you charge more for a North Face jacket here? No, because it’s on Amazon.
If what you are selling is not uniquely flavored by the place you are selling it, you have a lot of figuring out to do. FedEx and UPS are a few steps ahead in the figuring-out department. Did you know it is close to offering reliable and affordable same-day delivery services? What is a retailer supposed to tell a customer shoving an iPhone in his face displaying the same item he just tried on in the store priced at 50 bucks less out of a warehouse in Atlanta that can be shipped and delivered to his hotel room by sundown?
I don’t know what the answer is for the independent retailer. It might be as compelling as the one family farmers came up with when corporations began buying up large tracts of fertile Midwestern land and hauling in 15-ton tractors on flatbed trucks to work it. Heartland communities practically folded up overnight.
What I do know is that in Aspen we talk a lot about the aesthetics of bricks and mortar in a RedLaser world. I don’t know if we’ll continue to get anywhere with that. It will be interesting to see how Aspen adapts now that the Information Superhighway is putting more and more retail traffic on the bypass. Maybe we’ll have to revive skiing.
Roger Marolt was stunned by the RedLaser. Contact him at email@example.com.
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