Long Range or: The Return to Normalcy…

In tense and uncertain times there’s a tendency for all of us to look towards our own personal bubble of responsibility. That’s not a bad thing. Taking care of kith and kin first feels like it could be our oldest instinct.

There’s no point in denying that some people are going to die as a direct result of this virus. Not acknowledging that would be foolish and wrong. For most of us – the vast majority – coronavirus could well end up being not much more than a monumental inconvenience – a way point in life we’ll use to measure other moments against. Twenty years from now we’ll ask whether something happened before or after COVID-19 the same way we do now with September 11th.

That’s all a prelude to saying sooner or later we’ll all get back to living “normal” lives, with the rhythm of nights out, family gatherings, and well stocked supermarket shelves restored. If you accept that there will be a return to normalcy, you owe it to your future self to spend some time thinking about what you want that future world to look like.

In that spirit, I went online last night and placed a few orders for books that have been lingering on my “to read” list. It was nothing crazy – Just four orders each costing less than $15. Each one of those sales went to small, independent book shops. It’s a niche market to be sure, but one I have a vested interest in preserving through the current economic uncertainty. For these small businesses, every dollar coming in will matter as they fight to make good on their rent or finding a way to keep paying their staff. Keeping these businesses alive is important.

Those who have the ability to do so have an obligation to make sure the smalls, locals, and independents are still alive and kicking when we return to normalcy. You’ll regret it if we don’t.

National treasures…

There’s a local shop about five minutes drive from the house where you can get bread, milk, eggs, smokes, lottery tickets, a six pack of select domestic or import beer, a selection of $8 wines, and hot or cold made-in-front-of-you deli sandwiches. It’s plopped down at an intersection where two or three different deeply exurban neighborhoods come together. If you weren’t use to seeing it there, it might even look out of place.

The fact is, mom and pop shops like Cooper’s Market aren’t just a local resource – letting someone skip the drive all the way into town if they only need one or two things and don’t mind paying the premium – they’re also a national treasure. They’re the natural home for local news and gossip – and even though I’m nowhere near a local in these parts, if you keep your ears open you can always find out who got arrested, who’s kid is doing “the drugs” or got knocked up, what house burned, or what the useless county commissioners got wrong this time.

Maybe it’s the kind of place that’s nostalgic only if you grew up in small town America, where they were the rule rather than the exception. It’s nice to know that there are still a few of them around. I like having the option of the big chain stores when I’m already out in the more densely developed parts of the world, but here in my little section of it I much prefer the familiarity of the human being who knows what you’re going to order before you even get to the head of the line.

The virtue of big boxes…

I don’t generally spend a lot of time perusing through Salon, but an article ended up in my news feed today that caught my attention. The rise and fall and rise and fall cycle of the American downtown is something I find endlessly fascinating – particularly why some communities can make their stretch of Main Street thrive while others never manage to clear the tumbleweeds.

Today’s article, like so many, place the blame on our friendly neighborhood “big box” retailers. I don’t doubt that they create a business environment where it’s awfully hard for the average corner store to compete. Volume pricing and favorable tax incentives to bring jobs to a community are hard to overcome. The piece that no one ever seems to discuss in detail is the shopping habits of the average American.

Of course I would never consider myself average, but if I use my own experience by way of example I find that the time I want to allocate to shopping for weekly essentials is pretty damned limited. If I go to the magic big box, I can find ample parking and pick up everything from spark plugs to underwear to fresh fruit and be on my way home in well under an hour. If I’d shop for the things on my average weekend list at small local businesses it would take three times that long because I’d have to make at least six separate stops, look for four or five parking spaces, wait to check out six times, and then go somewhere else when one of those retailers doesn’t have a specific item or brand I want. That’s not a slam against small business. It’s just the reality I’ve experienced.

I don’t hate small businesses by any stretch of the imagination, but if they want my business they need to deliver something I can’t find at the big box – there’s a shop here locally that sells fresh roasted coffee of fifty or more separate types and styles. They get my business because I’m willing to suffer a little inconvenience for a superior coffee experience. As for the anything else on my list, it’s not a matter of looking for the best, but rather simply a matter of time. The virtue of the big box is that even if it doesn’t always save me money, it saves me time and that counts for a lot.

Time is the most limited resources any of us have and the less of it I have to spend shopping – whether for bread and eggs or for a new car – the happier I’ll be with the entire process.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Business Hours. If your posted hours of operation are 10AM-5PM and I pull into your parking lot at 4:30 on a beautiful sunny Thursday afternoon and find your lights off and door locked, there’s a fair chance that I’m going to drive down the street to the next best alternative and give them my money. I totally understand that you’re a small business and sometimes things come up, but at least once in every four stops, I pull in to find you’re not open. I like you. I like doing business in the community when I can. But my ability to do that depends largely on it being convenient. No matter how much I like you, I’m not making three trips to your shop when I can order from a major online retailer and just have the damned item sitting on my doorstep tomorrow. You might be the only game in this two stoplight town, but you’re not the only game on the planet. You’d have at least one more satisfied customer if you behaved accordingly.

2. Imaginary Saturday. I woke up a few minutes before my alarm went off this morning. In the fog between being asleep and being awake, I managed to convince myself that today was actually Saturday. As many of you may have notice, it wasn’t. Now that I think back on it that didn’t so much annoy me as it pissed me off beyond the level that could be strictly considered reasonable.

3. Heroes of Labour. This week, the president of the Russian Federation handed out Soviet era awards during a revived May Day rally in Red Square. I’m as big a fan of the “good old days” as anyone, but I’m starting to wonder if anyone in the wheelhouse is paying any damned attention to what’s actually happening in Russia. Look, I know raising a generation of Middle East experts has left us a little thin on Cold War know how, but surely there are a few crusty old guys in the belly of the Pentagon who we can dust off to give us a read on the situation. I’m not saying it’s time to re-garrison Germany, but I do wish we were paying just a bit more attention to what’s banging around that part of the world.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Customer service. On Tuesday morning, I drove an hour towards Baltimore expecting to transact a not insignificant amount of business with a well reviewed small local retailer. I originally planned to go in on Monday, but noted on their website that they were closed Sundays and Mondays. No harm no foul. Of course their site didn’t make any mention of the fact that they were also going to be closed on Tuesday this week. So I wasted two hours and burned half a tank of gas driving around north eastern Maryland on Tuesday for no apparent reason. As much as I’ll be the first to tell you that keeping up with a website is a pain in the ass, it seems to me if you’re going to bother to have one, it’s probably worth keeping the information up to date. Otherwise, as in this case, you’ve thoroughly annoyed a cash customer before they even walk through the door. I’ll probably still do business with this outfit because they’ve been recommended to me so highly, but it wouldn’t take much in the way of less than excellent service at this point to send me down the road to the next closest competitor.

2. Email. If anyone is wondering how I spent my first day at work after almost two weeks off, it was largely dedicated to reading, responding to, filing, or deleting 127 emails that rolled in over the Christmas-to-New-Years window. That’s not an exceptionally heavy load – it would have been far worse if I had taken off two weeks in say the middle of the spring. Look, I think it’s cute that there were a few people out there trying to get something done over the last two weeks, but since I wasn’t one of them, it’s going to take me a day or two to get back up to speed. Especially since I wasn’t exactly spending a lot of time pondering what important bit of email I was missing while I was away. Trust me when I tell you that sending me a follow up email the day I get back isn’t going to improve the response you’ll get. In fact it’s just going to make the process work more slowly for both of us. Now that I’m back in the saddle, it’s safe to assume I’ll work your issue in whatever priority it’s given by those elevated to positions higher than mine. In the meantime, have a cookie and get off my ass.

3. Attention span. I don’t know if it’s me or my surroundings, but lately my attention span feels like it’s all of about 37 seconds. That’s great for some things, I suppose, but I’d have a hard time listing what any of those might be. For purposes of reading, writing, or really trying to get anything done with any semblance of speed, it’s really kind of a hassle. I’d hoped that the new year would bring some kind of renewed focus. Unfortunately, it feels a lot like 2013: Part Two in that regard. As always, I’ll muddle through until the glitch works itself out.

Viva la Capitalism!

I’ve really been sitting here metaphorically bashing my head against the desk trying to figure out what was worth writing about tonight. The solution, as usual, was right in front of me. Usually, I don’t pay that much attention to the internet. It’s basically transparent to the user… I mean I don’t sit down at the keyboard and say I’m going to use the internet to access WordPress or my bank. I just point in the direction of what I want to do, and it gets me there. The wonder if the internet really isn’t what got me thinking tonight, though. It’s the sites like eBay and Amazon, Etsy and Cafepress that let any schmo create an account, log in, and start selling products to a whole world of consumers that they wouldn’t have access to from the kind of businesses that people started from home five or ten years ago. Maybe I’m coming late to this party, but damnit, that’s a big deal. It’s huge! Someone with an idea that’s good enough can sit in the comfort of their on home and make money from nothing more than their ideas and a willingness to put in the time to identify and reach an audience.

Your chances of becoming an internet millionaire are probably about the same as hitting tonight’s MegaMillions jackpot, but still, in this case it seems to be a function of the harder you work, they luckier you get. The beauty of this new wave of micro-capitalism is that it takes so much of the hugh startup costs out of the equation and lets people focus on delivering a quality product while someone with the technical expertise deals with the “back office” stuff. With a few good ideas and a high speed internet connection, we can all be in business. Talk about a radical departure from all of human history.

Viva la Capitalism!

Wooden Warbirds…

In over five years of blogging, I’ve only rarely made product endorsements and I think almost every one of those was for various new toys Created by Apple in California®. Frankly, I don’t generally have enough personal interest in any product to bother writing about it. Lots of other bloggers have a very good handle on the field of endeavor. From time to time, though, something comes along and catches my eye.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that Greg has been a good friend of mine for the better part of the last two decades, but that’s not really the point here. I think the guy’s onto a winning product and has picked a great and innovative way of raising the funds to make it happen. The interesting thing here is that no one is asking you for a donation. By signing on as a project backer of Wooden Warbirds, you’re pre-ordering a product, not just giving away “cash-for-a-cause.” If enough people out there think this is a good opportunity, and Greg reaches his $10,000 goal, there’s one small business that can tool up and start putting together product and making sales. Have you seen the economy lately? How can you not admire a guy who wants to take his passion and make a business out of it, right? I’ve seen Greg’s work, and he’s the real deal.

Look, I know for $1 a day you can feed an orphan in Greater East Dirtbagistan. Charity is great, but how often do you get to help a guy start a business? So seriously, go check out the link have a look around and see if it’s a project you can get behind. For $5 you can get that warm fuzzy feeling you get from doing good (and a fancy laser-cut medallion). Kick it up to $25 and you just covered the Christmas present the historian or aviation buff in your family will covet.

Do me this one favor. Click the link and have a look around. If nothing else, maybe you just discovered the tool you need to generate startup capital for your own great idea.