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Liddick: Intolerance vs. profit

by Morgan Liddick

After 31 years of yeoman service, one of my house’s circuit breakers finally gave up the ghost. Who says “made in America” doesn’t mean quality?

Thus began my voyage of discovery in search of a replacement – not that easy, since the breaker was of a “vintage” variety, rather expensive and uncommon. At least at the two closest places. The good news is, I didn’t have to leave the county to find another that wouldn’t break the bank, and would fit in the bargain. A hardware store in Frisco, almost as vintage as the item itself, came to the rescue.

I had shopped there before, so I was pretty certain it would have what I wanted. In fact, it seems a bit like Dr. Who’s space-time traveling Tardis: a lot bigger on the inside than it is from the outside, and full of improbable, but very useful stuff. Shelves and racks of it. It reminded me of the hardware store in the small town where I grew up: It had what you needed at a price you could pay, and there was all the free advice you could absorb from the owner/manager/sales clerk about how to use/fix/replace/install whatever it was you bought. I left satisfied with my purchase and secure in the knowledge that, when I need a chimney cap for my 5-inch stovepipe, I can find one.

I also began thinking about convenience, competition and customer service, and how they can impact a business – for better, or worse.

The store where I bought my circuit breaker – and a number of other electrical and mechanical odds and ends over the years – is probably not going to close due to competition from the Lowe’s now under construction in Silverthorne. A chain store will simply be unable to match this fellow’s inventory, knowledge or ability to give a customer all the service he or she can stand. The business may actually prosper, as people discover that a big-box hardware store and lumberyard cannot, despite its size, carry everything.

When my hydraulic woodsplitter lost a guide shoe – an important part that keeps the wedge straight on the track – I had a similar experience with another local shop. Four hardened bolts, lockwashers and stop nuts later, I was back in business. Note: I didn’t want a box of bolts, I wanted four. And four is what I was able to buy. I’ve also bought all kinds of nails and screws from this place, because they keep this sort of thing in bins – you buy what you need, not what someone in Cleveland thinks you ought to need. Ah, convenience and choice: what a concept. I’ll go back there; sooner or later, I’m going to need 4-penny finishing nails again. And a gallon of bar oil for my chain saw.

Then there was our search for flooring.

The carpet in our bedrooms had pretty much reached the end of its time on Earth, so we began looking for alternatives right here. This is proof that I am an optimist.

My wife and I were interested in bamboo flooring; we attended a local contractors’ and home improvement fair in Silverthorne, took a number of relevant business cards, and were following up. It was not a particularly fruitful exercise; although I own a home here, I am neither a Trustafarian nor a member of the top 2 percent – apparently, requirements for local buyers of flooring.

One encounter was particularly grim. Entering a shop devoid of customers, we looked at samples while waiting for the owner who, the clerk assured us, would be able to help. Said owner did give us a price and checked availability. On supplier’s confirmation that the material was available, we were told that the shop’s markup, usually $1 per square foot, would be reduced for this order. So far, so good. But the estimated installation cost would have nearly doubled the price. When told that the quote was fully one-third more than what could be obtained in Denver – even including trip charges – the owner countered with a statement to the effect that flatland installers didn’t know what they were doing. Worse followed.

When she realized who I was – the SDN columnist who had welcomed Lowe’s – she let us know that she had no use for my business, nor for me. And since business transactions are undertaken between willing buyers and sellers, I was perfectly happy to take my leave; there are other providers eager to exchange their services for my funds.

Which illustrates an admitted downside to running a business: You have to like dealing with customers. Or at the very least, you can’t object to them.

It also raises a question: what are the implications of intolerance trumping profit? And do we want to be that kind of community? Think carefully before answering …

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at mcliddick@hotmail.com


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