Flagstaff Shopping

Why The Little Stores Went Away

Let me take you back to the days when Flagstaff was a small town. When complaints were flying that you had to go to Phoenix if you wanted to shop. And when you could find a parking space downtown.  I’m talking about the time before the Flagstaff Mall, WalMart, Kohl’s, and Target.

Oh, there were still lots of stores, even some large chain stores like Long’s Drugs, Thrifty Drug, and Safeway.  But there were also lots of unique little stores owned by folks who lived and worked in Flagstaff .

But that was twenty-five plus years ago. The town has grown and times have changed.  Phoenix shopping has arrived in Flagstaff and has brought with it both the good and the bad.  Prices, selection, and service have improved.  Traffic has increased.  Parking downtown is almost an impossibility.  And we’ve lost many of the unique little shops that once catered to the needs of Flagstaff and the surrounding area.

The Daily Sun’s coffers will soon be overflowing with all the full-color ads and shopping inserts that add all the extra weight to our newspapers before Thanksgiving.  The stores will be packed on Black Friday  as eager consumers line up to grab the 25 to 50 percent off bargains from the shelves.  But are they really bargains?

Think about it!

The markup for most retail products is 40 to 50%.  When you see this type of discount at a small retail shop, what you are receiving as a savings is actually a large portion of their profit for that item.

But what about the larger chains who offer just about everything in the store with a large markdown  Do you really believe that these savvy businesses are going to give you their total profit and survive?  Not likely.

There are two ways to give that big discount and still make a profit.  One is to increase the markup and then offer the discount.  The second is a secret that Sam Walton, the ultimate entrepreneur who used to advertise “all our products are made in the USA”, discovered years ago.  Buy large quantities cheap in China and mark up as much as 300% when selling in the U.S.  These are concepts that the corporate world has used for years.  They are concepts that the big chains understand very well.  And they provide a marketing ploy that the consumer falls for every time.

These concepts are here to stay.  It’s a fact of the American retail system.  And we (yes, even me) love thinking that we are getting a great deal.

But the price of that bargain is high.  The uniqueness of a hand-created product, requiring many many hours of labor, is harder to find since the hand crafter can no longer receive even a reasonable wage for those hours once the product has been discovered and sent to China for reproduction.

The so-called bargains that the consumers eagerly purchased filled the cash drawers of Wall Street and stockholders of the corporations who understand the concept of Madison Avenue marketing.  But this money, and the benefits that go with it, left Flagstaff —never to be seen again.

The unique small stores, locally owned by entrepreneurs striving to compete in today’s corporate-driven world, are mostly left  empty that day.  Their cash drawers don’t even cover the expenses of remaining open.  As a result, these unique little stores will struggle for awhile until, like many before them here in Flagstaff , they, too, will close their doors and fade away like a ghost in the night.

“So what?” you ask.  “So they couldn’t compete.  What difference does it make?  We still have the selection and the bargains.  We shop locally now.  Isn’t that what the Chamber of Commerce and its many business owners have been harping about for years?”

Are you really shopping locally?

Is your money staying in and benefiting Flagstaff ?  True, the proceeds from local sales taxes has grown over the past twenty-five years.  Salaries paid to local workers remain in the city.  But that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the profits that now enrich the out-of-town and even out-of-state big corporations that lead us, like a bull with a ring in its nose, to the bargain trough.

You probably won’t even miss the unique small stores when they disappear.  The people in Phoenix haven’t.  San Jose , California traded its uniqueness for corporate greed in the 50’s and 60’s.  At a League of California Cities meeting, which I attended as a City Council member is the 70’s, I heard the mayor bemoan what they had lost.  And, for them,  it was too late.

Is it too late for Flagstaff ?  Probably.  The Chamber of Commerce used to advertise “They don’t make towns like this anymore!”  And it’s true.  Once its uniqueness and small-town businesses disappear to be replaced by corporate giants, we can never go back. And, we are well on our way as more and more trees and small local businesses are being sacrificed for “our economic growth.”

Growth is inevitable.  The stores, controlled by Wall Street, make a contribution to the shopping experience in Flagstaff will continue to arrive.  But, if we fail to remember and shop at the little stores, with their uniqueness that only a local owner can provide, the very things that make Flagstaff special and why many of us moved here will disappear.  It’s up to you and me—and whether we care enough.

Joyce Reid is the owner of Creative Gifts to Go , one of those Flagstaff-based unique stores that has escaped to the the Internet to provide gifts to businesses and individuals around the world.  


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