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Box stores: Love or hate 'em?

First, a definition from Wikipedia: "Large, free-standing, rectangular, generally single-floor structure built on a concrete slab. The flat roof and ceiling trusses are generally made of steel, the walls are concrete block clad in metal or masonry siding. Floor space several times greater than traditional retailers in the sector, providing for a large amount of merchandise..."

Of course nowadays, box stores - or large scale chains as we also know them - can be very beautiful. Case in point, West Elm, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware. Hardly concrete slabs, like, say, Walmart; but box stores nevertheless, in the sense that they are retail Goliaths that are mass producing stylish-looking products at too-good-to-be-true prices.

Some of my favourite box stores are Target - for kids clothes and pharmaceuticals - and PBK for their astonishing range of delightful baby + kids' home decor products. I always gasp when I step off that elevator at the PBK on Bloor. The bright colours, the cheerful designs, the perfectly lined up baskets of drool-worthy toys. What parent could NOT love PBK?

I also admire the boldness of Restoration's 360 degree make-over. I think they developed some stunning products over in Europe and they are bringing a high-end look to the masses that even the most discerning customers have embraced. What's not to love about Belgian linen and weathered oak at prices that no authentic European craftsman could ever dream of matching?

And let's face it, in defence of the box store, sometimes you just don't have the money to spend on authentic quality and unique design, even if you want to. Sometimes, the great look and great price of even a cookie-cutter design will do in a pinch.

But here's what I hate about the box stores. I hate that their impact is so profound on our culture that we have stopped caring about investing in authentic quality. I hate that every kid in town has the same bedroom. (Remember when Nestings Kids was around? Now that was a special store.) I hate that by using buzz-words on an uneducated consumer, they fool us into thinking we're getting the real deal. I hate that most of what I've bought at box stores has not lasted much longer than a couple of years. I hate that the discount clothing chains have made it virtually impossible for the average local clothing store to thrive.

Most of all, I hate the service. It's not that the sales associates are rude or impolite at box stores. It's that many of them aren't informed. They aren't experts. They aren't educated about what they're selling. I tried to buy my daughter a helmet at a sporting goods box store. The sales guy didn't have a clue which brand was safer or better or more highly recommended. He was a teenager. Sweet, but indifferent and clueless. We had to Google helmet brands right there in the store, while the sales associate watched.

I hate that sales people at box stores talk into head-sets. "Eric, can you get me a soap dish from the warehouse."
I hate that you have to wait 45 minutes while Eric looks for the soap dish in the warehouse.

And finally, as a retailer, I hate what the box stores are doing to local businesses and unique specialty boutiques. And I say that with as much ownership and responsibility for that as anyone else. This rant is not about condemning anyone! I shop at PLENTY of box stores! For my electronics, sporting goods, kids clothes, books...even furniture. But I still hate the way the retail landscape is changing, and how it will continue to change as more box stores open up here. More cheap enticing too-good-to-be-true goodies to choose from.

Target is the most bittersweet of all. I love Target, and yet I have no illusions about its pending effect on my business. There goes another chunk of it...How can I compete with Rachel Ashwell's linens and accessories? It's like, $1 for a really cute lamp!

I guess it all comes down to prioritizing. In what areas of my life am I willing to invest, and in what areas am I perfectly comfortable with great-looking, disposable products? We all make those choices every day. But let's at least do so with our eyes open. And let's please keep having these conversations.