Anecdotes from The Alleged Retail Apocalypse

I may lose my mind if I have to read another think piece on how retail is dead and COVID proves it. After all, it wasn’t enough with the barrage of articles about how “cities are dead, let’s all live in single-family dwellings, isolated from one another.” Here lies Nat. He was claimed not by COVID, but by insanity. So, anyway. Wondering how retail can compete? You need not look beyond the train wreck that is Home Depot in contrast to the surviving family business. This is especially apparent through a few recent personal experiences.

At Brooks Lumber, an independent hardware store in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, pickup-only service is offered. The mom-and-pop has a comprehensive, if not perhaps a bit crude, setup to encourage social distancing and safe practices for handling payments and invoices.

THE COTTAGE ECONOMY

As COVID exposes structural cracks in the global supply chain, more people are spending time at home, thinking about self-sufficiency. Baking your own bread instead of buying some plastic-packaged dreck at Wal-Mart. I was on the phone with my old man a few weeks ago, and he mentioned the yeast shortage. “If you think, at the average grocery store, you probably have a few dozen people buying it every week, baking bread at home, or whatever,” he mused, “and it’s such low volume. And now, any uptick in that volume means they’re sold out for days.” Of course, we currently have a sourdough starter that produces a weekly bounty of bagels, breads, and other such carboliciousness. Such is the life under the ‘rona.

THE BACKYARD HARVEST

Another part of this involves, of course, gardening. Here are the homestead, we’ve been involved in a months-long effort to finish our back yard. We had a killer vegetable garden last year that produced a few bushels of tomatoes, and a dozen plus pumpkins from a vine that we didn’t even know was there but subsequently took over the yard. Herbs aplenty. Lacinto kale, dill, and an invasive forest of arugula. But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it, which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

AND, OF COURSE, THE PATIO

Beyond the garden and home cooking projects, another effort in our household involves a patio plus pervious stormwater installation. It’s my second residential installation after what we call The Pit, a narrow, deep hole designed to siphon water away from the side of the house. In severe rain, moisture still creeps through the newly-sealed basement walls, but we haven’t had standing water once. The Patio is designed to handle a roughly 500-year rainfall. 

This has involved piecemeal attempts to salvage brick, packing the back of two separate Hondas with several hundred pounds of material (820lb weight limit per vehicle– reasons why people buy Fords F250, presumably). It has also involved quests to buy gardening supplies, soil, and rocks.

But Homes Depot have proven to be sold out of many things, given the aforementioned crisis of disruptions farther up the supply chain. This issue has been further exacerbated in the wake of protests. A manager at a local store told me that– wait for it- the company had ordered them to freeze all deliveries in the city of Detroit until the protests subsided. (Home Depot did not respond to a request for comment).

The answer to this? Pain in the ass though it is, the obvious answer is to go to a locally-owned, smaller store. Virtually around the corner, on McNichols (a.k.a. Six Mile), we found a mom-and-pop store that had dozens of bags of topsoil in stock. The sole case for ordering from the Despot, as I call it, was the fact that I could get 40 bags of topsoil and compost delivered with a bunch of lumber at no additional delivery charge for less than $2 per bag.

Hardware stores carry usually a 50% premium on this and many do not deliver. But they also stock the stuff, usually utilizing different supply chains that perhaps haven’t been quite as badly disrupted as the gigantic, monolithic ones that supply the big box economy. This is an important thing to consider when we ask ourselves questions about what kind of economy we want to have when all of this is over.

Bare shelves at the 7 Mile Meyers Home Depot on Detroit’s West Side. The store, which one manager said has the highest walk-in sales traffic of any store in the region, is the only big box hardware store in the city of Detroit. The company recently suspended deliveries in the city of Detroit owing to the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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