Business as Usual Is Over . . . or Is It?
If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.
When B.L. Ogilvie & Sons opened for business in 1919, it faced little competition selling coal and household goods to the well-heeled residents of Weston, Massachusetts.
If you visit Ogilvie’s today, you will find a crowded but neatly laid out arrangement of everything one might need in the way of hardware and home goods. The store is brightly lit, immaculately clean, and smells faintly of turpentine, kerosene, and pine. It is a good, old-fashioned smell. Clear, sometimes hand-lettered, signs indicate which aisle holds screws, and where to find the charcoal briquettes. Several uniformed employees constantly fuss about, tidying and arranging merchandise on the well-stocked shelves, eager to answer questions, explain how to DIY, or talk about issues in the local community.
At the rear of the store on a raised platform several steps up above the crowd, behind the wooden sales counter, Kevin Whittemore surveys the establishment while seated at the same wooden desk that served his father, and several grandfathers before him. An old cowbell clangs, and his well-trained eye shoots to the front door. Mrs. Appleyard enters, and stops to let her eyes adjust from the sunlight outside. A spry and passionate gardener, Mrs. Appleyard, by Kevin’s count, must be 89 or 90 years old. She takes a step or two farther into the store and stops to admire the bird feeder display Kevin’s team has just set up in aisle one. He is pleased to see Ray Glover, his hardware manager, step forward to greet her by name and offer assistance. Kevin cannot hear the conversation but senses, as she pulls a small darkened lightbulb from her purse, that Mrs. Appleyard is having trouble with her refrigerator again.
Kevin watches as Ray walks her to the proper shelf, selects
the appropriate replacement, and slips it into a small brown paper sack. He nods as Mrs. Appleyard smiles, slips the bag in her purse, and offers a small wave to Kevin up on his dais. No money is exchanged. No credit card swiped. No signature needed. Ray will note the purchase on her account, and Mrs. Appleyard will receive a bill at the end of the month, with a handwritten note from Ray, “Nice to see you. Hope you can find the cat food for Mr. Whiskers’ dinner in the back of the fridge more easily now!”
How can such a place still exist? Is it an anachronism, a throwback, a pleasant stroll down memory lane for the ultrarich?
Ninety-three years after opening for its first day of business, Ogilvie’s is a thriving mecca for “in-the-know” locals seeking a new screwdriver, suet for the bird feeder, lumber to repair the deck, framing to build a house, or advice on ridding the garden of those pesky gophers. Located on a back road, near an old abandoned railroad track, with no sign to speak of pointing the way, Ogilvie’s parking lot is brimming with Land Rovers, BMWs, Mercedes-Benz station wagons, and rusted out Ford pickup trucks from 7 a.m. ’til 5 p.m. on weekdays, and 8 a.m. ’til 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Kevin Whittemore and his staff have all the business they need, want, and can handle, despite the opening of a Home Depot Superstore, a Lowe’s Home Center, and a Walmart on the highway outside of town. In short, Ogilvie’s is thriving.
How can a place like this survive in the age of Amazon? Isn’t it doomed to fail, a dusty bookstore in the era of e-books? A tube TV repair shop in the time of hundred-dollar flat-screen LCDs?
As he surveys his fiefdom of old-fashioned service, his knowledgeable staff trained to remember names and personal details of his customers, and as he looks back at his bearded, mutton-chopped, and mustachioed ancestors glaring down fr
om their portraits on the wall above his desk, Kevin Whittemore’s face shows no concern.
What does he know that we don’t?
The cowbell jangles again as a young mom wearing jeans and a sweatshirt enters in a rush, her toddler in tow. The child instantly reaches for a shiny object on the nearest shelf, but she swoops him up on her hip before he causes any damage. With her free hand, she brushes back a lock of hair that’s fallen across her eyes in the process.
“Hello, Marjory!” calls Whittemore, rising from the desk and stepping down to the sales floor. “What can we do for you this fine morning?”
“Hey, Kevin.” She sounds tired and it’s only 10:30. “We need a gate, or something, to keep Teddy out of the kitchen. He’s figured out how to open the cabinets and thinks it’s great fun to dump my pots all over the floor.”
“Ha! Maybe we have a budding new drummer for the Warrior’s marching band?”
“Please . . . that’s all I need. Seriously, what can we do? I tried those handle-tie bars, you know, the ugly white U-shaped thingies? I hate how they look all over the new kitchen, and Dave got so frustrated trying to open them that he cut them off and threw them all out.”
“Sounds like Dave . . . . Right this way . . . I think I have just what you need.” He leads her to a display at the end of a nearby island. “Here you go. It’s the latest baby-proofing set. These clips install just inside the door, so they’re invisible, no ugly white U-shaped thingies. You slip your finger in here, push sideways, and voilà, the cabinet opens up. No problem.”
She tries the latch. “That is easy to open, and they don’t show.” Brushing off a small hand tugging at the end of her nose, she asks, “Don’t suppose you sell aspirin, do you?”
“Of course, right at the register. These may be easy for you to pop open, but little Teddy won’t be able to work the latch with those tiny fingers—for a couple more years, at least. By the time he can get his hand in there, hopefully his interest in banging your pots will have subsided.”
“Looks good, Kevin, but you know Dave . . . he’s a fine teacher, but he’s not exactly what you’d call . . . handy.”
“They’re super-easy; it’s just two screws.”
“I dunno. He can be a real klutz, and those are expensive cabinets you sold us.”
“I’m more worried about what else little Teddy might find in those cabinets than I am about Dave messing them up,” Kevin says, his expression showing a faint concern. “You did take all the bleach and stuff like that out from under the sink, right? I remember coming into our kitchen once—Brian must have been three or four—and finding him sitting on the floor in front of the sink with a bottle of ammonia in his lap. Thank goodness I reached him before he got the top off. They didn’t have safety caps back then.”
“Oh my! He could have. . . .” She squeezes her kid, and kisses him on top of the head before flicking off a Cheerio she notices glued to his cheek.
“Here, listen, take one of these cool new electric screwdriver flashlights. Just came in. Dave’ll have so much fun playing with it, he won’t realize you have him doing chores.”
She smiles as she takes the new tool.
“You know him pretty well . . . you’re right, he’ll love that thing.”
Well, come to think of it, Kevin thinks, I guess knowing Dave—and all the other folks in town—well, that’s my real job. Isn’t it?
“He can do it, I’m sure,” Kevin nods his head at her. &
ldquo;But if he has any trouble, any trouble at all, you call me and I’ll stop over and help him out. Meantime, get that stuff out from under the sink, and look around in the other cabinets, too. You can’t be too careful.”
Customers at Ogilvie’s do not roam the aisles, smartphones in hand, Googling the online price of every pint of Velux paint, demanding Whittemore and his staff match their competitors’ prices on paving stones and bricks. Ogilvie’s charges a premium for virtually everything they sell, and they get their price without complaint.
So what is going on here? How has Ogilvie’s been able to survive for so long? Why do people prefer to go to Ogilvie’s rather than lower-priced super-mega stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s?
Because Kevin Whittemore, and the entire staff at Ogilvie’s, understand that relationships matter more than money, more than time, more than almost anything else in our human existence. Relationships tie us together and form the social bond that keeps us all alive. The adage “People do business with people” is as true today (even on the Internet) as when it was first uttered. Of course, digital complicates that by allowing organizations to build relationships at a scope and scale that Kevin Whittemore’s ancestors never dreamed possible. It allows us to connect with thousands and even millions of individuals as “digital friends.” It allows us to receive online birthday greetings every year from high school classmates we have not laid eyes on since graduation day, and to share pictures of babies with the entire universe seconds after their births.
Make no mistake, digital is a powerful thing. It’s an amazing, awesome, wonderful, terrible thing. However, digital on its own does not, for one second, change a thing about our need for relationships and their importance in our lives, or their impact on our decision-making, an