Just Saying: Shopper or Stalker?

By Shelley Wildgen

Attention Recreational Shoppers: If the art of the deal is what floats your boat, stay right where you are with your ribbons of credit cards. If knowing who you’re dealing with is your top priority, line up over here with me.

I’m not sure who introduced the phrase ‘relationship sales’, but I do know how much I like it. To my way of thinking, sales should involve a relationship -- something with an introduction, a depth of knowledge, and a two-way understanding. In a world of transactional selling, which promotes short term, single sale solutions, this changing face of customer service is befuddling. It’s hard to adapt to online shopping carts, disembodied voices, clothes that don’t fit and products that don’t ship. I guess the good news is that it forces some of us out of our houses in search of the real deal that can only be found in a real building. Storefront-inhabiting store owners may be in shorter supply , but so long as I have breath in my body and car keys in my hand I’ll continue to find and fund them best I can. I buy my cars from Cooney’s, my menswear from Red Shark and, when possible, my produce from the Belleville Farmers’ Market because I simply cannot resist a shop owner who is passionate about their product.  

There’s an art store in Cobourg I used to frequent as much to chat with the colourful storeowner as to buy her many art pieces – from a painted window to a canvas of a beach using real sand to a bronze bust of a bust. Loved and bought it all! Would I have done the same if I saw those wares on Amazon? Not likely. The nuances of real life-person-chat sell me every time…and they don’t always have to be cheerful.

Another favourite haunt was a church owned by a guy who sold all kinds of quirky things. I always stopped in and I always bought something. Once I spied an arched mirror in the shape of a church window. Oh, I had to have it. Where did it come from? How did he find it? He looked dubiously at me then went into a story I devoured with every gesture. “Well, it comes from very far away. I had it shipped from the temple of a wee Asian village in…CHINA!” 

Gulp. I still pulled out my wallet and said mirror still hangs in my living room. Even with mocking sarcasm, church guy provided me with the kind of story I would never get from hitting ‘add to cart’. An equally memorable, but nicer storeowner is a woman named ‘Snow’, in PEI. Her vintage displays are irresistible: white wicker, patchwork quilts, coloured glass, ancient wooden tables. You get the picture. She readily engages in conversation as I linger about, and she always throws in a little something extra. A tea towel or a book. Just a little sumpin’ for stopping by. One time she dashed out to my car as I was leaving just to give me a bouquet of freshly cut Black Eyed Susans in a china vase. I found myself shopping at her store every week.

When I was on the hunt for used furniture, a friend encouraged me to branch out to Kijiji, so I did. And when I did, surprisingly, I found a favourite shopowner online. I wanted dressers. One for each bedroom. I came upon this young mom who bought old dressers and then custom painted them. She did her painting while her baby slept, and kept her inventory moving out the door at the rate of one $80 dresser a day. Her story, her ambition and her creativity kept me going back until I ran out of bedrooms.

I think a lot my appreciation for storeowners developed when I was raising my kids in Stirling. I regularly frequented a small, family-run grocery store, a family-owned shoe store with a real puppy to pet, and a couple of restaurants with the local owners’ names right out front. My favourite was an antique shop where the owner talked the price down instead of up. You grow to expect and appreciate real personalities selling real things. 

The only possible down side for some smaller stores is they have to make sure to maintain every customer relationship. One bout of a customer being taken for granted can lead to hurt feelings and, occasionally, back to the big box snits can follow.

Big box stores have customer service departments that easily refund money on bad purchases but they lack the friendly expertise of a store owner which, in turn, prevents those bad purchases from happening in the first place. I find they’re just fine if you know exactly what you’re after, though. A skilled audio friend recommended I go to Best Buy to buy my fancy schmancy microphone, so I did, without incident. It’s fine. It’s good.

Now I want to buy something for listening to music. Being from the whoofer and tweeter era, I don’t want to take my ignorance to a plucky young thing from a big box store, and luckily I don’t have to. It turns out, Red Ball Radio will be my next stop. Locally owned by a local audio expert, I’m counting on Red Ball Radio to understand my story, then sell me exactly what I need.  

And he will.