Over the last few years, I’ve observed a consumer shopping trend that troubles me. It isn’t mega-chains, e-commerce or smartphone hipsters with every price on the Web at their literal fingertips. Rather, it is sociological and it’s not device-driven, although it is, in part, device-enabled. It’s actually two opposite trends; they’re in a tug of war, and brick-and-mortar retail is at the center.

Let’s call these two forces urgency and lethargy. Urgency is a constant in our retail world. Customers want a purchase the instant they decide to buy. And, driven by things like Amazon’s get-it-in-an-hour-by-drone culture, they believe it isn’t just possible, but, in fact, it’s necessary. Consumers also believe increasingly that the mechanics of instant gratification should be available from all stores…and that the benefits of Amazon Prime membership should be universally applicable across the breadth of the American economy. The only thing people will wait in line for without complaint is a new iPhone…and the new “Star Wars” movie. If, that is, they can’t get a leaked version streamed to their new iPhone first.

I get it. We’ve worked very hard to meet expectations and to hustle. When demand outpaces our inventory (as it often does in the fall, when band programs kick in), we call our customers minutes after their item hits our doorstep. We turn over repairs as fast as we can, seven days a week. In short, we try to match our customers’ urgency. After all, the faster we work, the faster we get paid…theoretically, at least.

That’s because the other side of this is lethargy. A prime (pun intended) example is the Amazon “Dash” button. Low on TP? Just hit the Dash button next to the commode and your favorite toilet tissue will be on the way before you flush. Why shop, even online? Why pick up your order at the store? They deliver it free! So many people now wait until the last minute for everything, fully believing that some sort of Dash button is always available. Consumers now practice just-in-time inventory. That, however, means that we have to be their warehouse.

So, the lethargy side of the coin often negates our efforts. This can manifest itself on the consumer side, as customers drag their feet picking up an order or repair. Something like, “I’ll get it on the way to the lesson next Thursday. He won’t use it ’til then, anyway.” It’s not as if our moving more slowly would be OK, though. I’ve had plenty of people leave their name and number to hold a book, called them 24 hours later (because replenishment was already on the way) and found that they had already gotten impatient and found it elsewhere. You can’t tell whether urgency or lethargy will dominate…not even with the same person.

So, why not just make everyone pre-pay, you ask? Many people are willing to do so. (The “buy it now” mindset helps.) However, many also do not trust a small, local store to fulfill in Amazonian style…and that is what they want. After all, Amazon has everything (or so it seems). You just have to pay before it’ll be shipped out. If a customer is standing in a store ready to buy, though, why should they pay for something that I can’t hand them?

And…you know…I can’t blame them. Lethargy also affects the supply side in our industry. Disclaimer: There is a growing number of companies that have entered the 21st century, and I’m not dissing those folks. However, this fall, we saw a clear view of the tightrope that jobbers and small retailers walk. I scrambled to replenish simple staples like recorders, valve oil and music stands over several weeks. Some sources might only have five out of 10 items on hand. Worse still, when I placed orders with some companies, I was told the product was in stock, but I didn’t find it in the box when delivered. You see, they “ran out” before my order was processed. Not something I like telling a customer whom I first told the product would be in on Thursday.

This didn’t just cost us business; it cost us customers. Brand new band parents struck us off the list as unreliable. It’s doubly tough because some schools are hyper-specific about the exact brand and model of accessories they require of their students. No substitutions accepted.

Certainly, “for the want of a nail” situations affect this. One major brand of valve oil was AWOL because it (reportedly) was out of bottles to hold the product. Jobbers repeatedly tell me they’re out of items because that manufacturer hasn’t shipped them in weeks. I get that, too, folks. Every link in the chain is stressed.

The lethargy isn’t about outages, though; it’s about responding to them. We can jump all we want, but I need supplier info to make sure I’m not jumping off a cliff. Why can’t I get a clickable order-tracking number with a manifest as every order ships? I get one from some companies, so I know it’s possible within our industry. Why have certain suppliers been three or more days behind in shipping without warning us? And why, with some companies, do I have to wait until the next day for a callback from a rep? The questions are rhetorical; I already know the answers. You’re cutting to the bone, and you’re too overwhelmed to move your company forward.

However, customers won’t stand for this; those of us in the trenches won’t, either. I’ve altered my buying habits to work more with suppliers that help me meet the increasing urgency of the consumer. Yet, I could count on one hand the suppliers that thoroughly and consistently do this…and still have fingers left for the Fist of Rock. There’s no “Amazon” on the supply side of MI.

Of course, there are a lot of products I could buy on Amazon for darn near my wholesale price. And with free shipping? Dang…that starts looking almost practical. And, for some reason, they’re better in stock than some MI sources are.

Jobbers, the only reason we’re not smacking the Dash button next to our commode is that, to Amazon, our industry is too small to make it worth their while to carry everything we get from you. Or are we? They just sent me a “business account” application….

Ultimately, in order to survive, we’ve both got to step it up.

No more articles