Mexican chocolate ice cream sounded pretty good last night. On our way to Christina’s, our favorite ice cream source, we noticed a “STORE CLOSING” sign hanging in front of Boutique Fabulous, an eclectic gift shop in the heart of Inman Square, Cambridge, MA – dog friendly, ice cream and coffee friendly, and open late in the good weather months. We’ve shopped there many times and explored, many more times, after ice cream.
“What happened?” we asked the owner as we walked through the front door, under the drooping sign.
“People stopped coming,” he replied. “I’d been declining slowly for a couple of years but then something happened last October. Maybe it was the Presidential election. Who knows? Customer traffic and sales nose-dived, and they haven’t come back….”
He went on: “Customers ask me, ‘Is it the rent? Is it the rent?’ They want to make it a landlord issue. It isn’t. My landlord has been great; he has wanted this to work. The problem is: This used to be a busy square and nobody comes here anymore. You need a couple of hundred people coming into the store every day to make it work and we just don’t have that now. Amazon is kicking us all to the curb.”
“Are other stores along this stretch of street hurting, too?”, we asked.
“Yes,” he said, and he talked one-by-one about a dozen stores within a few blocks of his.
“I went to the mayor and city council and I said, ‘Look at what’s happening on this street. You need to start thinking about what this street and what this part of the city are going to look like in four years. Count the empty store fronts. What will fill those? Certainly not store front retail. And, if retail isn’t here, what will be here? What are you going to do when you have a dozen or more empty store fronts here?’ And that’s just within four years from now.”
Paraphrasing someone whose name I’d rather not use, “The death of one store is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”
We’ve been awash in statistics about disappearing sales and customer service jobs – the impact of the Web and digitization on travel agents and other service businesses; hospitals; banks, insurance companies, and other financial services companies; manufacturers; technology businesses; and on and on. The statistics look different when they show up on your own streets and you can see the tragedy of one store’s death.
My last question to the store owner, as we left, was, “What will you do next?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ll have to figure it out.”
While we can be agile, those of us who sell or work with customers directly, we are not safe. While the impact of the Web on our specific employers and jobs in the next four years may not be crystal clear, the impact of the Web on jobs like ours is VERY clear. By and large, it isn’t good.
We need to envision the impact a few years ahead. And, if the news isn’t good, we need to figure out our next move, now, rather than waiting until our sales nose-dive or our employers hit the wall and restructure, forcing us out.
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