For the last three years I have been living in Pamplona, Spain, and have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the culture and the life here. There are so many differences and similarities between this culture and my own from the USA, many aspects of which I hope to help integrate into the USA, perhaps spreading by some kind of ideavirus (my current marketing read).
Pamplona is essentially a big village. People that live here are often from one of the many surrounding little villages (yes, they are as picturesque as you can possibly imagine), and they bring their own small village mentality with them. This means that for may years, big companies and shopping centers hadn’t really placed Pamplona as a strategic market.
What this meant is the idyllic view of a European city was in full force. You would go to individual fruit vendors, butchers, repair shops, and all manner of specialists. And, since people didn’t really leave or return to the city, chances are you visited these people because they were your cousins, your uncles, or your best friend’s family members. Things were integrated, linked together by the ties of family and kinship, of knowing your neighbors, and of living in close proximity with each other.
Then comes a Macy’s style department store to the middle of the city, El Corte Inglés. This store is beautiful (though I don’t care for the architecture). The products are beautifully displayed, they have everything you need (mostly), and it’s organized just as we might see the late Marshall Fields or Macy’s of today.
A few things changed when El Corte Inglés came to town, and it this arrival has stolen 4 things from up:
- Money back guarantees: Communal Justice
Money back guarantees would have been unheard of before hand. Today if it breaks within two years, you are entitled to a full refund at El Corte Inglés. Before hand in Pamplona, no shop offered a guarantee, but that didn’t mean a shop would hem and haw if you weren’t satisfied with the product. They knew that their reputation was at stake if you weren’t happy with the product, and that word traveled exceptionally fast around the village. There was a system of communal justice, but it was backed up by relationships, perhaps much morepowerful than money back guarantees. This meant that the products tended to be better, because losing one’s reputation in a small village would spell the end of the business altogether.
- Higher expectations for customer service: Transactional relationships
In the past, there was really no one who had an incentive to provide a high level of customer service and assistance. If you wanted something you talked to the shop owner who would help you buy it. There are still many stores with this model today. But the shop keeper might even be reluctant to sell it to you if they knew it wasn’t the right thing. Now, however, many shops that have the best quality products have had to force themselves to provide a higher level of customer attention, service, and adopt a “customer is always right,” type attitude. However, customer service at El Corte Inglés has the tendency to turn you into a transaction as opposed to a person. Your money is the reason I am giving you the attention, which also happens to be the business model for the (ahem) world’s oldest profession. It’s not a genuine relationship, and you can feel the difference.
- Shopping districts: Less equal opportunities for small businesses
The addition of this large department store downtown has had the effect of establishing a shopping district. The logic of the people is that if you can’t find it at a nearby shop, it’s in El Corte Inglés, or if it’s not at El Corte Inglés, you can find it at a shop nearby. This means that stores that are too far away will not have success where they are. High end stores paying the most in rental costs are now moving other shops who may offer lower priced, higher quality alternatives, out of the market. This makes it harder to compete with the big players, and in turn smaller businesses have to work much harder, raise prices, and push in order to stay in business.
- Innovation: The disintegration of community.
I won’t blame El Corte Inglés for human nature. When someone can find higher quality service or products or an experience that they like more, the ties to family and community become less likely to shape buying decisions. The blender you may have bought at the hardware shop on the corner is now bought at El Corte Inglés, because …..there was a sale, the clerk talked you into it, it was convenient, the other shop was out, you needed it now, it was an impulse buy…Regardless, the sense of community begins to fall apart when we start to districtify our shopping, when we start Rather, when there are many options spread over a wider area, then we start to see only the things offered by the giants, and we might not visit the Mom-and-Pop stores that have a lot greater care and concern for our life, family and well-being.
There it is, 4 things that I believe that big box retailers rob from our local communities. It’s a diagnosis of one part of the problem. However, I do not mean to assign blame to these retailers. In the USA, we often haven’t had anything before the Walmarts and the Macy’s. I’m not mad at them, either, but instead, I think we have cause for great hope. I think that movements such as the local food movement, or focusing on our local communities, dividing cities into neighborhoods, ensuring progressive zoning laws, and ensuring that communities can stay intact is a hugely important issue. Many are working on this, and as we are forced to sit in our cars for hours on end, we may inevitably start to contemplate what we have lost, but better is to brainstorm about what we might achieve.