Wednesday, April 12, 2017

30-Day Offline Shopping Challenge

I’d like to start this entry on a personal note, with a tribute to my dear uncle, Robert Mattern, who passed away on March 25 at the age of 80.

Uncle Bob was my first entrepreneurial inspiration. During my entire lifetime, he owned and ran Mattern’s Bait Shop in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and was still running his beloved shop at the time of his death.  As a child, I spent hours in the shop during every trip to Aberdeen, gently fingering the colorful lures and fancy rods on display, playing with the minnows in the tanks, and - most of all - observing Bob as he interacted with, and truly helped, his many loyal customers.  Bob’s obituary captured these relations well: “Customers sought out Mattern's expertise in fishing and hunting, his knowledge of the best fishing spots and his skill in repairing fishing reels, rods and ice augers.  Bob and [wife] Linda appreciate their customers and consider them friends.”

To me, this is the essence of the small business experience.  I love the personal touch, the joy of a bright and tidy display, the pleasant sounds of people working together, and the knowledge to be gained from an experienced shopkeeper.

Last week, I tried to run to Macy’s in downtown Minneapolis to choose a funeral dress over my lunch break.  In my 12+ years downtown, I’ve made the “Macy’s run” countless times, for last minute birthday gifts, stocking stuffer candies, or (often) fashion.  But this time, as I came through the skyway, I literally stopped in my tracks, mouth agape.

I knew it was coming; I’d read the news stories and seen the huge sales going on as the massive department store’s 12 levels slowly condensed into fewer floors and tighter space, but I was still not prepared for The. End.  It’s gone.  Vinyl crowd control ropes now mark a stark path through the barren space and empty counters that once made up Macy’s, and before that, Marshall Fields and Dayton’s.

Sadly, this is now a trend, as we read about hundreds of stores closing across the country, with a grim outlook for the future of other local businesses.

This week, I came across this article directly on point on my Facebook feed. Author Ted Diadiun likens today’s shopping culture to Aesop’s fable about the goose and the golden egg.  A couple’s goose lays a golden egg every day, but when they grow greedy for more and cut the goose open, they find no eggs inside and kill their wealth-creating goose in the process.  Similarly, as shoppers use small businesses for “showrooming,” testing out the merchandise and gaining the advice of the shopkeepers before ultimately buying online at the cheapest possible price, they are putting these local shops with their wealth of knowledge out of business.

This has all prompted me to start my own 30-day challenge.  I will not shop online for the next 30 days.  I will make time to visit brick and mortar businesses for every need that arises, and embrace the experience.

I did this last year, and I came out of it with fond memories – like my toddler becoming captivated by the magic of a bookstore for the first time, and riding the carousel at the local mall together – as well as new friendships with local store managers, and new discoveries of “hidden gems” around town that I now frequent. I also tend to think local before going online now, because I want to support those businesses but also because I truly enjoy the experience.

So I’m going cold turkey again, and I welcome readers to do the same.  I would sincerely love to hear about your own adventures and discoveries; please come back and share in the comments below!  I am hoping there are others out there like my Uncle Bob and me, who value the knowledge, service and personal interaction that come from small businesses, and want to see these experiences survive for future generations.

Happy shopping, and maybe I’ll run into you out there!


  1. Well done. My father gave me the same advice in the 1960's when the first Kmart big box store opened in our community...long before Amazon or the internet. It was the beginning of the end for stores like your uncle's. Sad.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment, Nevin. That was good foresight on your father's part. These are interesting times, and fairly emotional if you visit retailer discussion pages right now. The consensus is that small retailers can still succeed, but they need to focus on what they can do better than the big box stores, like personalized service. I'm a deeply interested party and I'll keep doing my part!