Rob Whitten had fled corporate life west of the Cascades and was working in construction when he got to know the owners of the small hardware store in Plain, Wash.
One day, they offered to sell. He took the plunge into retail 21 years ago, just as it began a massive transformation with the blossoming of e-commerce.
From the start, Whitten knew that Plain Hardware, buoyed as it is by a building boom in the surrounding vacation communities, would have to adapt to compete in the Amazon era, with its bottomless selection, always-on availability and ever-faster delivery speeds.
"They've transformed customers' expectations for fairly quick fulfillment, and that will never go away," Whitten said. "Our job is to figure out how we do it better than they do it."
That means working with suppliers to ensure he's never out of that key piece or tool a local homeowner needs to finish a project, today. "Instant fulfillment," Whitten calls it.
Surviving in retail, as in many businesses, is the art of adapting. That's never been more true than in the age of Amazon. In its first 25 years, the Seattle company's relentless algorithmic efficiency and scale have fundamentally changed the game of buying and selling. But the stories of Plain Hardware and three other family-owned Washington retailers reveal how small stores have carved out a niche to survive and even thrive by providing expertise, personal service and community support.
The U.S. retail industry is enormous, generating some $5.3 trillion in sales last year. Online sales have grown to about 10% of that total. Amazon is expected to garner about 38% of online retail spending in the U.S. this year, according to eMarketer. Meanwhile, many long-tenured national brands have struggled and closed stores.
In Washington state, the number of retailers, including everything from hardware stores and grocers to restaurants and online merchants, shrank over the last quarter-century, even as the state's population rose 40%. The state went from 11.3 retail establishments per 1,000 residents 25 years ago to 7.8 last year, according to an analysis of Washington Department of Revenue tax data.
That said, the "retail apocalypse" narrative can be overstated. As the National Retail Federation noted recently, stores are making a comeback as big brands invest in technology to modernize the shopping experience and better integrate physical locations with e-commerce operations for things like order pickups and returns. This remains a risky bet, however, as retailers try to catch up with Amazon's massive spending on technology and willingness to experiment with new retail concepts, such as the "4-star store" it opened in Seattle this past week.
Three-quarters of the 550 independent retailers polled this spring by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which calls for greater regulation of Amazon as part of its advocacy for decentralized economic power, considered competition with the Seattle-based company to be their top challenge.