Like many Americans, my mother loves going to the mall. I spent countless childhood weekends wandering with her through those sprawling, air-conditioned cocoons, purchasing a variety of products from stores whose corporate offices were far from our hometown.
Growing up a mall shopper, I eventually became a mall employee.
As a college student, I worked for corporate retail chains where my slightly-above minimum wage jobs depended on opening at least three store credit card and/or awards accounts a shift, and encouraging customers to add on as many items as possible to hit my individual sales goal. All of those numbers were tracked for each employee, displayed in the break rooms, and reported to regional and national managers daily.
I, like every other mall worker, worked until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. many a night, waiting for stragglers to vacate the store before performing 30 to 60 minutes worth of closing duties, and eventually leaving the brightly lit den of blaring pop music and tile floors. It was all fairly dull.
Then, in 2011, I began working for the Music Box, a local independent record store.
This is where I saw not only how independent businesses enrich a community, but also the challenges they face to stay in business and provide something unique and special for customers.
In a small, independent establishment you are in the trenches together, I quickly learned, committed as a team to developing relationships with customers and constantly finding ways enhance your business.
Paying for rent or a mortgage, merchandise, insurance, advertising, utilities, etc., being an independent has all the overhead expenses of corporate stores, without the security and shared risk that a network of outlets can provide. If a store should decide to hire employees, yet another set of costs—wages, unemployment insurance, benefits, etc.—are added on. Then, there are the owners’ cost of paying for their own living expenses, and maybe even making a profit.
All of this while trying to compete with big box retailers and the Internet for customers.
As a result, most independents provide a level of service and expertise that is unrivaled by big boxes or any website, in large part because they specialize and are passionate about the products they sell.
The effort and care put into building a store makes it especially awful when a customer says, “I can get it at Wal-Mart/the mall/online for a few bucks cheaper.” Often that isn’t true, but when it is, it is more frustrating because in most instances if an independent—at least the one I worked for—could afford to cut a deal on an item, they would. Independents feel the loss of a purchase much more than big boxes do.
I saw the local business owners I worked for give homeless people and struggling customers money from the register, buy collections the store did not really need to help someone pay their bills, and as often as they could, patronize other local businesses to keep capital in Pensacola.
Having worked in an independent shop, I much prefer to support local businesses that actively try to make Pensacola a thriving, diverse community for residents and businesses alike. Which is why I, a former mallrat, now shop local whenever possible.