Thursday, April 19, 2007

David and Goliath duke it out on Southport

Last week in Chicago, I wandered around in my old neighborhood. Got a giant cupcake at Sensational Bites strolled into Splendor (the little gift boutique where I worked the while we lived there) visited Fourth World Artisans, meandered down Southport past Julius Meinl only to be stopped dead in my tracks by a mammoth new Anthropologie.

On one hand, I love Anthropologie. They always have the most incredible window and store displays. Giant branches suspended from the ceiling and covered with wisps of hanging Spanish moss, or little teapots covered in calico or groups of Chinese lanterns coated in red wax, glowing eerily. It is all very beautiful and romantic and uniquely suited to store displays. I mean, no one is going to actually turn their kitchen sink into a burbling fountain, but it works there somehow. The stores are a fantasy land. It reminds me of playing house. They have silly little embroidered and appliqu├ęd aprons and dog collars coated in rhinestones and sequins. It’s a pleasurable fantasy. But, the things they sell are of absolutely horrifying quality, which is why I’ve steadfastly refused to purchase anything at full price.

Everything I’ve ever purchased there has eventually come to a sad, bedraggled end. The cool pearl and mahjong tile bangle bracelet I bought there for $90 is scuffed chipping and I constantly have to re-attach the beads with needle nose pliers. The wild kitchen chair cushions I found there were destroyed at the dry cleaners (despite the tags which instructed me to dry clean only). They puffed up like marshmallows in the microwave and all the buttons burst off (thankfully the dry cleaner was able to sew them back together, but they are still only a shadow of their former selves.) The point is, their exorbitant prices don’t exactly guarantee a well made product. So when I see them coming in to a cool boutique shopping area like Southport, I start to feel even more conflicted.

I loved working at Splendor and Dilly Lily. Elizabeth carries really cool unique products, manages her inventory brilliantly and is really involved in the community. Christine has an eye for design and a way of welcoming customers in to her store that is truly inspiring. I felt like those little shops were really part of their respective neighborhoods. I could walk to work every day, as could the other girls who worked there. We had lots of regular customers and lots of moms coming in with their babies on their walk to the grocery store, dry cleaner and park. We heard rumors every so often that Anthropologie was thinking of coming into the area. We would check with the chamber of commerce, only to be reassured that no, no, no, it was only a rumor.

But the rumor is now a certified fact. It is incredibly tough for a small boutiques like Splendor and Dilly Lily to compete with them because they order merchandise in relatively small quantities, while Anthropologie can make or break a small wholesaler with a single order. So the challenge is to find merchandise that their huge team of buyers haven’t noticed (virtually impossible.)

Certainly being a chain is not inherently bad, in fact Anthropologie makes many of these lovely little wholesale companies infinitely more accessible to people who aren’t lucky enough to live in a city. Their scale enables them to be competitive in a way that a little shop just can’t be. But those little shops are the ones that made it a fun shopping area to begin with. Anthropologie wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for places like Splendor and Sensational Bites, but once they are there, they drive off the businesses that brought them there. I guess what small businesses have to do is find their niche and thrive there. What is it that small businesses can do better than anybody else? They have to be online and tailor services to the individual desires of your customers. What can you do as the little guy that the big guy can’t? Personal attention and a customized experience are important to people these days, and in some ways, this empowers small business.

In Africa we met an Australian guy called Dave, and as we talked Dave said "You know, as Americans having traveled here and after going to China and India, you will be really uniquely situated to know what the future looks like." I keep having this sensation that “The World is Flat”, what I saw in Africa, and what I’m going to see in China and India and “The Accidental Masterpiece” all fit into this grand scheme for my life that goes way beyond what I could have imagined for myself. I think my job is to grasp the threads of the ideas floating around me to try to weave something truly extraordinary with all of this.

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