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Goodbye Smith and Hawkin

July 11, 2009

After trying unsuccessfully to find a buyer, Smith and Hawkin closed this week. They are no longer taking orders on their web site. They are in the process of closing all 56 of their brick and mortar storefronts. They won’t be sending out any more catalogs.

The more I read about their demise, the less I felt their closing was driven by the economy. Instead, a blog written by Matt Mattus aimed at “those gardeners who are bored with the ordinary” seems to express it all. He wasn’t surprised by this closure. As a “professional gardening hobbyist’ he always found something intriguing in their catalog or store. But lately, their merchandise became “ho hum” and less unique. Matt complained that the Smith and Hawkin shopping “experience” had changed and not for the better.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine asked me to look for copies of the stone heads on Easter Island while I was at the Atlanta Gift Market next week. He wanted something different for his award winning backyard landscaping. His request and Matt’s comments reminded me of a Pool and Patio Center that was known for carrying the most unique of gifts and furniture. We actually sold large hand carved wooden tiki heads and  ceramic tiki glasses personalized with our customer’s name or initials.

In 1952, when my dad started this store, there were very few manufacturers of outdoor furniture. There were no other places to buy outdoor furniture in New Orleans. For that reason, anything we carried seemed unique to customers in our market. The Mallin Ring Chair, The Famous Telescope Director Chair, and innumerable other odd and unusual pieces made shopping in our store. . . well, an “experience.”

Shopping in American is no longer an “experience” at least not an enjoyable one. Everything has become so homogeneous. Our children wear the same clothes from Old Navy or Abercrombie and Fitch. Our homes are filled with decorative accessories made in China and sold through big box stores. Even if we wanted something different, where are we to shop? The small boutique stores have given way to mega giant big boxes whose presence is ubiquitous even in small town U. S. A. Think about it, how many Starbucks or Banana Republics are in your hometown! Michigan Ave. in Chicago and Fifth Ave. in New York are all about J. Crew, Crate and Barrel, and Nike Town; stores that every town has these days.

People are starved for a new and interesting shopping experience. Have you been to a Pier I lately? When they first opened, they had an eclectic mix of wild and mysterious merchandise. I never walked out of there without buying something. Now, their merchandise has become mundane and boring. I never walk out having bought anything. The same can be said for the Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn stores. Both retailers are in trouble, not just because of the economy, but because their product mix isn’t interesting anymore. I mean how many fuzzy sofa blankets do you need?!

The best example of this has to be Sharper Image. I took a trip years ago to visit my brother in La Jolla. While there, we ran across a Sharper Image store. I had never seen one of their stores but I had gotten their catalog. I couldn’t wait to go in. I was mesmerized by their selection of things I had never seen before. In fact, I visited that store several times that trip. When they closed last year, many people, including me, blamed their demise on how bland their offerings had become; air purifiers and all things memory foam.

For many years, I always bought one thing at market that was a showstopper. I didn’t always expect to sell it. In fact, I didn’t care whether I did or not. I just wanted something that made shopping at my store different than going to my competitors. One year we brought in a rickshaw. Another was human sized chessmen including the Queen, a Bishop, a Knight, and a pawn or two that we arranged on a chessboard made of crushed white and black marble. I haven’t done that in a while and shame on me!

So, I guess you see where I am going with this.  Look around your store. Try to see it from the eyes of a consumer. Has your product mix become “ho hum?” Is your floor a sea of the dark brown finish with beige cushions or slings? Do you carry at least three items that are so truly different you would be tempted to buy them? Is shopping in your store an “experience?” In these trying days, we have to do everything we can to convince a consumer they should buy. Making shopping a fun and exciting adventure is one place to start.