Friday nights were special in our town because it was the only night that all of the stores stayed opened late. Every other night they closed at 5:30. On Sundays, the whole town was closed. Downtown Chester, PA was quite the place to be on Friday night, and everyone showed up for the festivities to shop and eat and just hang out.
The boundaries of my world back then were the city limits. I assumed that every city and town in the country did the same things we did on Friday nights. I never understood why TV stations even bothered to broadcast. It was unheard of to stay home on that night. Who would be around to watch TV?
It was also a great night for dating. Lots of young couples walked around town window-shopping. A guy and his girlfriend came into the store, arm in arm one Friday night. I knew him. He worked at Scott Paper and occasionally shopped with us. He and his girl had stood outside the store looking at all the rings in the window. We had two kinds of rings: real and fake. The real ones came out of pawn and were solid gold with real stones in them. They were terrific values. The fake ones were sterling, gold-filled, or gold-plated rings that might last about as long as the date the guy and his girlfriend were on.
The happy couple spotted a ring they wanted. It was a fake black-and-white pearl friendship ring. We bought them by the caseload for less than $2 each. They sold very well. The small sign in the window advertised “Genuine black and white pearls. Sale! $3.95.”
Inky waited on them. The young man said he wanted a black-and-white pearl ring for his girlfriend. Inky nonchalantly asked if they wanted the $3.95 ring in the window, or would they like to see something fabulous for $14.95. When Inky asked the question he looked right at the girlfriend. Fabulous. He nodded his head as if he and the girl understood what she deserved. The embarrassed suitor had no choice but to opt for the $14.95 ring. We brought out the tray of rings, fitted her, and rang up the sale. We only had one tray of black-and-white fake rings, so no matter which price he chose, she was getting the same ring. The issue wasn’t the ring; the issue was how much he would pay us. $14.95 seemed just right.
It was just another day at the pawnshop.
Friday night was when I got to eat in a restaurant—a rare occurrence made all the more pleasurable because the pawnshop paid for my dinner. I received an extra $1.25 in my pay envelope to cover dining expenses. I never actually spent that much money—that would have been extravagant. But, I was very happy with a grilled cheese sandwich, French fries, and a Coke at the counter of Brownie’s Pharmacy. The distinctive odor of the pharmacy made an already agreeable experience memorable for a lifetime. On the way back to work I’d get a chocolate ice cream cone and walk through the center of town to see all of the people who had come in to celebrate Friday with me.
But then, Fridays changed. Slowly at first. The crowds weren’t as big. The enthusiasm wasn’t as strong. Before we knew it, Chester was a ghost town on Friday nights. The slowdown crept into the rest of the week as well. A change had occurred.
What had changed was America. Shopping malls started appearing everywhere. And, those malls changed far more than just where people bought their goods.
Shopping malls were open late every night of the week. You could go whenever the feeling hit you. It was no longer a special evening that we looked forward to. It was now something we could do every day, every night, any time of the week. The event that made us a community was now gone. We were all on our own.
The shopping experience at a mall was different. The stores were different. Malls didn’t attract mom and pop stores. They brought in chain stores with faceless people running them. And, the faceless people all sold the same merchandise. The faceless people didn’t seem to care if I shopped there or not. The stores all looked the same. It seemed like the entire country was becoming homogenized. We no longer socialized with our neighbors. On Friday night we all came out to see each other in town. But, because malls were open every night, nothing was special. I no longer saw people I knew.
Ultimately, the malls killed the small cities and towns as shopping areas, in the same way that Internet commerce will kill the malls. But, the change from malls to Internet is seismically larger in impact than the change from small towns to malls. It’s more than just evolution. The change from malls to the Internet is more than just a change in distribution channels, as some brick-and-mortar retailers like to say. It’s more than just a new advertising medium. It’s more than just today’s gimmick. The Web is the ultimate matchmaking device. It brings buyers together with sellers. It brings information together with people looking for information. It brings job seekers together with headhunters. It might seem homogenized, but it is supremely customized. It matches specific people to specific needs. It brings people together into a global town to meet and talk and hang around. It does worldwide what my little town tried to do every Friday night, but without the grilled cheese and French fries.
The Web is also democratic. Anyone can open a "store" on the Web with very little investment. Little guys can compete side by side with mega-giants. The Web is the most fundamental change in how we live and interact and shop and get information and take care of business. A TV commercial has it right: “In three years, if you’re not doing business on the Web, you’re probably not doing business.”
The marketing lesson: Embrace change. Embrace it completely. Embrace it now.
Change is a fundamental part of business. Customers change, distribution channels change. The business paradigm changes. It's unimportant whether change is good—change is going to happen. Business owners must be alert to the winds of change and be ready to adapt to the new trend as soon as it hits.
Jack Rossin is a marketing consultant who specializes in Presentation Skill Training. The most valuable tool a marketer has is the people in the company who talk to his prospects; Jack teaches them how to speak confidently. For more information about Jack please visit his web site at www.jackerossin.com, or call at 617-527-0265.