Well…that was a shock the other day when the report blasted through my radio that the Art Van furniture store chain was going away…but not before a weeks-long liquidation sale.
If you’re not from around here or any of the other markets with Art Van stores, it’s not a big deal. But this is lousy for several reasons, the lousiest being 3,100 people are gonna lose their jobs. The distant second lousiest is it’s sad to lose another local brand and an organization that supported local causes including Detroit’s wonderful Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I got to thinking about why this happened. Of course brick and mortar retail has been taking hits for a long time as consumers decided they’d rather shop online or at discount stores. It’s why you see a number of shopping malls dying, downscaling or de-malling. Some retailers simply made bad decisions, either expanding too quickly, misread the market or couldn’t manage their finances.
Art Van was bought out by a private equity firm a couple of years ago after longtime family ownership. By all accounts that company was little more than a financial slumlord, leaving Art Van a future with no future.
The truth is, I always hated going to furniture stores. We did buy a couch from Art Van 10 years ago and haven’t been back. I haven’t been in any other furniture stores either, unless you include Ikea, which is like going to a hobby shop to buy a fun kit to construct, or a plate of Swedish meatballs with a cheap hot dog on the side.
The problem with your traditional furniture store is you’re either stalked from the moment you cross the threshold, browbeaten or ignored. Take for example the time we bought that couch a decade ago. My wife saw the one she wanted in an Art Van circular. We went to the store, was immediately met by a guy who looked like he was having a very bad day and we told me we’d make his job easy. My wife showed him the circular, said, we’ll take that one. Easy sale, right? The guy would just have to write the order, we’d pay, set up delivery and go away. But no, our Willy Loman whined, “you only want the couch, not the whole grouping? It’s better when you buy the whole grouping.” It’s better for him, but it wasn’t what we wanted. We politely told him we’d just like the couch but if he couldn’t sell it to us by itself, we’d be happy to take a hike. “O…..K……..,” he sulked wrote up our order. What the hell! We were an easy sale but were made to feel like we were a couple of cheapskates or losers who couldn’t afford “the whole grouping.”
Then there was the time we just needed a room divider. One of those things that folds in three or four sections. We’re at Art Van again. This time we weren’t immediately attacked. We actually had to walk around the store and beg for help. We finally found a saleswoman who seemed friendly…until we told her what we needed. “Oh,” she said with a very disappointed look on her face. “Yes, I think we might have some. Let me look in the back.” Never saw her again. Room dividers cost less than 100 bucks and that apparently wasn’t worth her time.a
Art Van also operated Pure Sleep stores. We went to our local Pure Sleep about a year ago to replace our bed. Easy, right? Not at Pure Sleep. The friendly salesman said we needed to “take the test.” Oh shit. He had my wife and I lay on a bed with a couple of monitors looming over us. The salesman gave us some mumbo jumbo about how sensors or something in the mattress could reveal how each of us sleep. I could have saved him the effort by responding, “generally soundly, when large TV monitors are now hovering overhead.” Anyway, he led us from mattress to mattress where we dutifully laid down and gave our impressions. We finally ended up at a newer version of the mattress we’d been happily using for more than a decade. That’s the one we bought. The whole process devoured almost two hours. We both needed a nap afterwards.
Finally, at another chain, my mother-in-law was looking for a small dresser. Small..because the room in her home built in the 1920’s…is small. The salesperson showed her one thing and that was too large. Think Smaller! She showed us another dresser….still too large. She just wasn’t getting it. When my mother-in-law said everything she was shown was just too big, instead of working a little harder to satisfy a prospective customer, the sales lady turned snotty, spitting out, “well why don’t you just buy a nightstand.” Next stop…parking lot.
If we had these types of experiences, we couldn’t have been alone. I know there are hundreds of conscientious, hard working and caring sales people just trying to make a living, and they suffer when a few losers give their ilk a bad image. It all leaves a negative impression on customers who just want to find what they have in mind and be done with it. Believe me, I’d prefer to buy my furniture in a store where I can see the colors and feel the fabric or wood and sit in the chair to see if my short, stupid legs will reach the ground. You can’t do that buying on Wayfair.com. But when we bought a new kitchen set last spring, we did buy it online. It was smooth and easy and arrived when expected and no one whined at us, insulted us, or disappeared on us.
Well, we did decide to take one last walk around our local Art Van today to see if we could score a bargain on a living room table. Several hundred other bargain-hunters jammed the store, hovering over the liquidation sale offerings like vultures over carrion. We didn’t see anything we liked, although we did notice an odd piece there and there that were nice, but not necessary, so we kept walking. On our way towards the exit I saw a family test-sitting on a triple sofa and thought to myself, “Do the salesman one last favor… buy the whole grouping.”
My Best Buy is closing. A lot of Best Buys are closing but this one is mine. Really, it’s my son’s, so it’s ours. But it’s more my son’s because we like to believe he convinced the company to open a store in our neighborhood. During the 1990’s when Best Buy was a pretty cool place to go to buy CDs and DVDs, TV’s, computers and really, anything you could plug in, we’d travel 7 or 8 miles to the nearest one and spend tons of time prowling the aisles…because that’s what men do.
When the first area Best Buy opened in Southfield, Mich. in the early 1990’s we joined the massive crowd that descended on this magic palace of electronics. I even bought an awesome Pioneer rack stereo system which I still use today. I waited forever to get to the checkout and enthusiastically signed up for a Best Buy credit card, which, over the years, I abused mercilessly.
At some point, my son, who was in his late teens at that point, wrote to the Best Buy people telling them they were missing the boat by not locating a store closer to where we live. He carefully laid out the economic data and made the case that there was plenty of money to be made if only they’d open a store in, or near, our town.
They never really responded one way or the other, but then one day as we buzzed by a decaying strip mall on one of our town’s main drags we saw a giant sign shouting that new Best Buy was going in there! Holy crap! Did my son pull off a miracle? I don’t care what you think…I’m going with it that he did.
On the day of the store’s grand opening, 15 years ago, my wife and son were first in line to get in. I was at work. Actually, my son was first and when the doors opened, he was the very first customer to walk through them, smiling wide as the employees lined up along the main aisle and applauded him…as if they knew they owed their jobs to the local kid who convinced the Best Buy corporate poobahs to plunk a store in our hometown.
We were loyal to “our” Best Buy for many years. I bought a few TVs, a couple of computers, GoPro stuff, a bunch of CDs and DVDs, hard drives, assorted parts, cables, a digital Nikon camera..and bag..of course and who knows what else. The cashiers used to laugh at how old my Best Buy credit card was, informing me I could get an updated one. I resisted for a long time since it had some sentimental value but I finally caved.
But over time we visited the store much less often. We stopped buying CDs and DVDs and the experience became both sad and annoying. We always liked just looking around at all the cool stuff but that became a game of aisle-warfare as one had to avoid the “clipboard people,” from cable or satellite TV companies stalking, then attacking you to pressure you into signing with their service. Screw that. There are no cliipboard people when I shop online.
Then there were the workers who were either not trained well or were chugging muscatel at lunch because they were either slow, apathetic or just ignorant. At times, they were simply absent because you couldn’t find one to unlock a case or get you something from the stock room that wasn’t available on the sales floor.
Of course the selection and prices were better online but I did attempt to patronize our Best Buy when it made sense. Unfortunately, it made sense much less often.
We noticed fewer and fewer people shopping at our Best Buy and started to wonder how they could pay to keep the lights lit and all the demo TVs flickering. It was actually sad to see the long, slow decline of a store that once was a wonderment….a place that represented fun, discovery and man’s constant need to plug in things.
It had been several months since our last visit when we approached the doors the other day. My son and I were greeted with a sign announcing the store would be closing November 2nd. For a moment we were speechless as a sudden sadness hit us. My son had worked so hard to get us our Best Buy but the store just didn’t work hard enough to survive. We walked around the store…quietly. We knew this was our final visit. The shelves already looked bare, the employees trudged through their day, mostly in silence and we just took it all in thinking of how much we once loved this place.
Finally, my son made his last purchase–some recording supplies. The young lady who took his money politely asked if he’d like to record the purchase on our Rewards Zone account–you know, so we could earn discounts on future purchases. Sure, we said, why not? She handed him his receipt, smiled a little, sad smile, and said, “thanks for stopping in.” Little did she know my son was the very first person who ever did.
One thing I can pretty much depend on, is when I go to my favorite store everything will be where it was the last time I visited. My cart pushes itself to the cold beer, unhealthy snacks, Wheaties, windshield wipers and shoe laces. You’ll notice I didn’t mention produce. Heh. Anyway. A month or two ago we noticed dozens of construction trailers jammed into the parking lot of our go-to store. When I got home I logged onto the township’s planning and zoning website and staring me in the face was proof of the impending personal trauma…a notice of permit for “renovations and remodeling” of my favorite store.
Now don’t get me wrong. The store was built in the early 1990’s and is sorely in need of an update. An update is fine. Throwing my life into disarray is not.
The first thing that occurred was the doors located on the left and right hand side of the store were eliminated, replaced by a new set of doors smack in the center of the building. Big deal you say? How insensitive. My wife and I always…ALWAYS park in either row G or H, putting us closer to the right hand doors that led in and out of the grocery part of the store. Never A or B or anything in between. With G and H no longer holding their advantage we were forced to plot a new strategy, ending up in E or F, closer to the new center doors. It was as if we were lost children, wandering into a new neighborhood with strange cars and SUVs, unfamiliar cart corral locations and a completely new scheme for handicapped spaces. You can imagine our confusion and fear we’d exit the store and have no idea where we had parked. Well, once we got over the trauma of the relocated doors things only got worse. Today, fully two months into the “renovation” we found inside sections our store draped in what looked like behemoth shower curtains. Just what are they hiding from us? Are they installing a new department featuring self-driving baby strollers? Keurigs that mix individual cocktails? Perhaps rooms where exasperated spouses can chill, and drink Keurig cocktails while their better halves play bumper carts with other shoppers. Essentially every food aisle was in a different place. Our Wheaties, usually found in aisle 13 were now in 8. Tissues were always found in the aisle next to the juice, yogurt and milk coolers. But the shelves that once held those paper products were actually ripped out, the vestiges of its former footprint only an outline in the 25 year old floor tiles. WHERE ARE THE FREAKIN’ TISSUES!!! THEY’RE ON SALE BUT THE TISSUE AISLE IS GONE…GONE!
Ok. Big cleansing breath. We scurried up and down every aisle remarking, “the ice cream is here now? Why’s the soup where the ant spray used to be? All the beer is adjacent to the oatmeal. What’s with that? But no tissues. Sure…plenty of napkins and paper towels and paper plates, but where were all the boxes of the clandestine Kleenex? My wife and I were tempted to chug from a bottle of Crown Royal..incidentally now located where the mouse traps were once displayed. Desperate, my wife found a store employee who looked at her sympathetically and led her to the new home of the tissues…across from automobile anti-freeze! She patiently explained that every time they rip out a row of shelves to work on the area they move that stuff to this new, temporary location. There was a sign with this information only it wasn’t located where you expected to see an item…it was at the new location where you wouldn’t know to look in the first place.
Frankly, by the time we got to the checkouts, which, thankfully, are still in front, we were ready for a quick detour to health and beauty aids for hits of Advil and wrinkle remover.
With all of our items paid for and safely bagged all that was left was to find our car. I resisted every urge to hit my key fob panic button to activate the horn so our Jeep would call out to its desperate owners. “Here I am, losers! Here I am! Please trade me in! “ We gingerly trod into the alien aisle E, suffering the mocking looks from a Range Rover, disparaging whispers from an over-confident Subaru and our impatiently waiting Jeep imploring us to “just get in.”
All sorts of reasons have been given for two once-great retailers, Sears and Macy’s, closing scores of stores and rolling out the pink slip carpet for tens of thousands of employees. Most of those reasons have to do with changing consumer habits, competition from lower-cost chains and the fact that malls now seem to attract more annoying kids hanging out than actual shoppers buying things.
Here’s my take. All that is nonsense. I think it all comes down to following your nose. I grew up in the New York City borough of Queens, or as Manhattanites would derisively call it, the suburbs. Indoor malls didn’t exist in the early to mid ’60’s so we schlepped from department store to department store. The nearest Macy’s was in the Roosevelt Field shopping center in neighboring Nassau County. The center started as an outdoor mall and was later enclosed. It’s the first department store where, as a nice, Jewish five-year old boy in a bright lemon-yellow sweater, my mother plopped me on Santa’s lap. A couple of times a year, though, we’d venture into Manhattan and enjoy the magnificence of Macy’s flagship on Herald Square–the biggest department store in the world. I especially loved it’s narrow, wooden escalators and hope to catch someone in a pair of spiked heels getting stuck on a tread.
Now Sears. We never bought any clothes at a Sears. That was where my dad bought car stuff and hardware. There were big Sears department stores and smaller Sears auto and hardware centers and we never called them “Sears.” They were always Sears and Roebuck. Less elegant than Macy’s but cool for tools and tires.
What did those stores have in common? Distinctive smells. They were intoxicating for different reasons. Macy’s smelled high-class. Maybe it was the extensive cosmetics department with puffs of perfume being spritzed at any living thing passing through. I always thought there was some sort of “luxury” fragrance they piped through the ventilation system that made the stores smell like a rich guy’s mansion. Whatever it was, when you were in Macy’s you suddenly felt as if your socio-economic status rose with each floor your reached on those old escalators.
At Sears, the odors were completely different. As you walked in the store you smelled the luscious lubrications coming from the auto center and the pungent, dank smell from the long, stacked racks of tires. I would take in the metallic tang from rows of Craftsman tools and a perceived puff of outdoor freshness from the garden tools, athletic equipment and patio furniture. Sears was hard stuff. Macy’s was soft. I paid no attention to Sears clothes, except for a pair of overalls I bought in 1984 from their catalog.
I can’t imagine this olfactory theory of retail is simply a whiff of imagination. All these years have gone by and those smells remain as fresh as an open can of paint at Sears and the 100 percent cotton of a fine white shirt at Macy’s or the cologne splashed on every inch of the salesman in the men’s department. I would follow those fragrances the way cupcakes fresh out of the oven always led me through the door of our neighborhood bakery. But now the bakeries are mostly gone, and so are distinctive vapors that let you know you were in Sears or Macy’s. They now have the smell of failure. The frigid breezes blowing from the vents, with no shoppers as buffers. Now when I enter a Sears, I’m as likely to find myself among racks of bargain-basement clothing as I am in their shrinking hardware department. What tires they sell are over in some corner of their auto service centers. At Macy’s what were once gentle perfume puffs are now staffed by aggressive employees who wield atomizers like fire extinguishers. The once courtly captains of haberdashery in the men’s department have given way to quick closers who make you feel like you’re buying a Suburu, not a suit. Their cologne is more akin to pesticide.
Yes, it all stinks now, and for me, at least, it explains in part why so many shoppers have now turned their noses up at these two once distinc-tive chains.