Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I don't want anyone to think I'm totally anti-growth. As I've said before, I couldn't have the store I currently have if Bend was still the small town it was when I started. The store, to me at least, is much more varied and cosmopolitan and interesting than the side street nerdy store of 20 years ago.

But there is good growth and bad growth. I believe that the first couple of waves of newcomers to Bend, adapted to the town. They slowed down a bit, dressed down a bit, appreciated what was here. They didn't have to numbers to overcome the small town ethos, and I don't think they had the inclination.

If there was a golden age for local business, it was around 1990. We had clawed our way back from the devastation of the Raygun recession. Little did we know that Walmart and Target and the Outlet Malls and Fred Meyer and Shopko and a seemingly every other big box chain was about to stomp into town.

I liken us small businesses to the mammals in the age of dinosaurs. It isn't so much that we are being hunted, as that the big thrashing dinosaurs might squash us without noticing. We run from niche to niche, hoping to survive.

One of the more astonishing things I ever heard from a tourist was; "I can now move to Bend because you have a Pier One Imports." Huh? Don't they have one of those where you came from? If you drew a curtain around the Forum shopping center, so that you couldn't see Pilot Butter or the Cascades, could you really tell where it was?

So the latter, bigger wave of newcomers totally overwhelmed us. They brought their attitudes and expectations with them, and expected us to adapt to them.

But they also brought numbers and money.

On the other hand, small towns also have their drawbacks. At the peak of the golden age, I had expanded to 4 stores. One in Sisters, one in Redmond, one in the Mountain View Mall, and the one in downtown Bend.

When we first opened in Sisters and Redmond, we were welcomed. People seemed glad to see us. But, even though the sales were barely sustainable even when I had the monopoly, I immediately had competition, opening across the street or just down the street. Suddenly, to the small town mentality of Redmond and Sisters, I was the 'big' Bend store, a carpet-bagger, while my competition was a local, who attended the same church, who's kids attended the same schools.

I put up with that for awhile, and then just left. The competition folded within months, and I spent the next 5 years listening to my former customers asking up to come back. But I learned my lesson.

Smaller towns get just as much competition as bigger towns, if not more. And in a smaller town, one cliche of customers can put you out of business overnight if they decide en masse to go to the other guy.

There is a safety in numbers. One wave of customers leaves, another wave shows up. You don't have to please everyone; just do your job and trust that enough people will appreciate it.

I went from the small town expectation of needing to sell to almost everyone who came in the door and to needing to be almost the sole provider of niche product -- to being one among many, to NOT expecting to sell to most people who come in the door. But...enough people are coming in the door to make us viable. I know that some retailers prefer a small group of dedicated, loyal, hardcore customers, but I prefer a much larger group of customers, dedicated and loyal if possible, but I don't mind the occasional, casual customer either.

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