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Retail survivors: How four family-owned Washington shops have made it in the Amazon era

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Of course, thousands of small and mid-size businesses also use Amazon's infrastructure to host digital storefronts, connect to customers and deliver their wares. Some argue that Amazon's third-party sellers business, now accounting for 58% of its physical gross merchandise sales, amount to an important lifeline for small business. Others see Amazon and its growing share of online sales as the greater threat.

'Instant fulfillment'

Plain Hardware is helped by its location: Beside Just Plain Grocery & Gas, the only other store in town. That remains an advantage, even in an era of next-day delivery. Most of the items Whitten sells are available on Amazon, often from 10 different vendors. (That said, people aren't yet buying dimensional lumber or drywall on Amazon in significant quantities.) His nearest physical competitor is 14 miles away in Leavenworth. The big-box home-improvement stores are farther off in Wenatchee.

To keep local builders and homeowners coming back, Whitten learns what they need – and want – mostly with "face-to-face interactions with customers ... asking and listening," he said. He augments that customer input with his knowledge as a builder, making sure to have all the little parts for finishing common building projects.

Whitten arranges weekly deliveries to ensure he doesn't run out of key items without having to hold too much inventory in his relatively small store -- about 5,000 square feet indoors, and a 10,000-square-foot outdoor lumberyard. He knows that a customer who is disappointed to find that the key piece they need is out-of-stock probably won't give him many second chances.

But when he does have what they need to finish that day's project a short drive away, he can compete with next-day Amazon Prime delivery and competitors farther down the road.

 

Plain Hardware, like other physical retailers, offers "instant gratification, instant fulfillment," Whitten said. "Somebody walks into the store and they walk out with the shovel they need. Done deal."

Amazon, the so-called Everything Store, also can't deliver the local gossip, the advice and expertise (particularly in hardware), the support that customers and employees provide one other and a venue for community events, such as the farmers market in the summer and youth ski-team gatherings. Plain Hardware employs about 20 people year-round.

"The feel that customers get when they come into our store -- you'll never get that from an online experience," Whitten said.

Over the years, Whitten has expanded Plain Hardware's offerings. The store stocks a rotating selection of gift items and clothing -- product lines that require different merchandising expertise to keep up with seasonal trends. There's espresso up front. In the winter, Plain Hardware rents cross-country skis to use on a 24-kilometer trail system through adjacent properties that the store maintains.

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