OPINION COLUMNS

The ghosts of Christmas (shopping)

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, December 6, 2014
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Ebenezer always raised his prices at Christmas. This did not win him any friends, but he didn’t care.

He was an old coot.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

His store was the only one left, and the nearest major city was hours away. Most of the kids in his town had never seen a mall. If people wanted to shop, they had to come to him, and they had to pay.

The night before Christmas, he locked up at 5 – not a minute earlier – and sent his three overworked, underpaid employees home without bonuses (again).

Then he shuffled home to spend the evening alone. He hadn’t given the cook the night off, but she quit, whining about it being Christmas Eve. “Good riddance!” he thought.

After a supper of sardines and crackers, he nodded off in his armchair and had a terrifying dream where his old partner visited him, rattling chains and wailing about some kind of wall, or mart, or some such thing.

He took an antacid with his glass of warm milk and went to bed.

He awoke to find a big, jolly ghost sitting at the foot of his bed. The ghost beckoned him to come along and for some reason, he did.

The streets were crowded with warmly-dressed people bustling here and there, loaded down with packages. Above the Christmas music and Salvation Army Santas’ bells, he could make out “Merry Christmas!” and “Ho-ho-ho!” echoing through the cacaphony.

Suddenly they turned a corner and were in a familiar place – old Fezziwig’s Department Store, where he had worked as a lad.

The big store was filled with last-minute shoppers, grabbing bargains until the shelves were empty. Fezziwig made the rounds, passing out cups of eggnog as he shouted Christmas greetings to all.

Then the ghost pointed up to the little office overlooking the sales floor. There sat young Ebenezer at an adding machine, muttering how stupid it was to discount so deeply when demand was high.

Someday, he vowed, he would put a stop to that.

Immediately he was back in his bed, and another ghost had come to call. Again they walked out into the street, and it looked exactly like it had that evening. But there was something he hadn’t noticed – cars leaving town.

“What?” he bellowed. “Where are these people going?” Suddenly the ghost took his hand, and they rose above the town. A steady stream of lights was going to and from a nearby town where a huge, new store had just opened.

Now it became clear. Sales were down this year, so he’d raised prices more than usual. He’d heard about the new store, but he had scoffed, secure in his hold on the local shopping dollar. But gas prices were down, and it was clear that people were willing to drive to get better prices, a bigger selection – and to be treated like customers instead of an annoyance.

Just as quickly, he was back in bed. Almost immediately, a ghastly ghost crooked its bony finger and summoned him to the street.

When they rounded the corner, his store was shuttered and dark. “How dare they close on Christmas Eve?” he sputtered. “Someone will be fired for this!”

Then a newspaper blew past, and he snatched it up, looking at the date. It was 10 years in the future, and there, on the obituary page, was his name.

The streets were empty, except for FedEx and UPS trucks – no line of cars fleeing to the nearby big-box store, he noted smugly. Then he noticed flickering lights in all the houses and suddenly, he and the ghost were inside.

The people all had glowing, tiny screens on their laps. They were shopping – typing in exactly what they wanted, browsing on-line catalogs, punching in credit card numbers. Those trucks were delivering packages.

“Oh, spirit!” he cried. “Show me no more!”

When he awoke, it was morning. He ran downstairs, opened the door and asked a passing teenager what day it was. Dodging a snowball, he heard the shout, “It’s Christmas, you old coot!”

That very day, he formulated a new business plan.

Treat workers better, pay them more and teach them to be more attentive to customers.

Hire someone who knows merchandising and marketing to make the store more attractive and customer-friendly.

Hire someone tech-savvy to set up and promote a website, so those who want to shop online can – with him.

And that very day, he hired himself to greet customers when they came in, smile, call them by name.

Years went by after that fateful night. Ebenezer found he rather enjoyed friendliness. He learned that good service, a smart selection of merchandise, competitive pricing, advertising in the local newspaper – and just being nice – attracted customers.

It worked, even after one of those big-box stores opened right there in his town.

Other businesses followed his lead and did the same things. They prospered by giving customers what big stores and online retailers could not: personal service, with a smile.

They made it through Cyber Mondays, Terrible Tuesdays, Wishful Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays and Black Fridays, and the town not only survived – it thrived.

Everyone did most of their Christmas shopping right there at home, happily ever after.

And the rest of the year, they went to each other’s garage sales.

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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