1 June 2020
Happy Retail USA
The Boilerplate Excuse Form
I do not often mention by name, and mention in-depth, retail companies on this website. My purchases are my own, even if they are not always private; and they are “reasonable” which, is, I know, a loaded term for a woman. This morning, however, I went looking online for fabric shower curtains Made in the USA. An oldie-but-goodie for me, since 1999, Vermont Country Store appeared on my Duck-Duck-Go browser.
I scanned the pickings of the curtain selections on that website. The pix looked an awful lot like the display vignettes from Country Curtains, a retailer in Massachusetts from which I’d purchased curtains for decades, going all the way back to my First House in 1988.
Well, the family business is no more. The family business went out of business at the close of business on December 31, 2017.
Founded in 1956 by Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick in Whitman, Massachusetts, Country Curtains was a true American retail success story. Jane and Jack started their business from their dining room table, selling curtains made of unbleached muslin in a narrow width. I bought a pair of those curtains, circa 1990. They are vintage, collector’s items, mostly because of the quality of the muslin fabric.
The historic Red Lion Inn was/is the family side-business. I own the 1992 cookbook from this hotel/restaurant business that has undoubtedly been COVID-ed almost out of existence. Just running any business in Taxxachusetts is a hazard to your health, your wallet, your pursuit of happiness.
That bankrupted business cannot honestly blame Amazon or Wayfair for their financial problems, but those two success stories were explicitly named and blamed for the demise of the grandparents’ company. That always-crucial Strategic Buyer of the nose-diving business just didn’t pop up to save yet another Massachusetts company that has flailed and failed, not merely the customers, but, even more importantly, the employees-for-decades, some of whom were stockholders.
I am fed up to my back teeth, reading yet again another boilerplate excuse form, blaming Fill-in-the-Blank of the Online Retail Company, that torpedoed your already sinking ship. The mercantile heartbreak did not just happen in 2017. That somber saga has been ongoing for many years at this, as well as at many other genuinely American businesses. (The latest boilerplate excuse has already emerged from the gasping and dying Department Stores and other peddlers of cheap Chinese clothing to the masses: COVID-19 did us in. For a more historical and accurate look at this shrinking segment of any economy, see Death of the Mall - Summer 2017.)
This reference is the ONLY one I shall ever excerpt from that Real-Enough-Lies website, wiki. Here is the tail end timeline of the Sob Story:
In 1996 Country Curtains launched a website.
By 2015, the small independent company had begun to suffer from the competition of companies like Amazon and Wayfair.
In October 2017, Country Curtains shareholders voted to liquidate the company, and its retail stores, catalog and internet operations ceased operations at year end.
In February 2018, The Vermont Country Store purchased Country Curtains’ designs.
To set the historic retail record straight, Country Curtains went out of business because the people running it had just about the worst customer service in the world. The online site was an archaic mess, from the very start, with no computer savvy, and no desire to get any! Their website displayed a total lack of online presence, paired with the worst ordering and inventory practices I’d ever encountered.
Even in the 1980s, this “small business” catalog was a gauntlet from which to order. I mailed-in the order form, waiting until almost the next season to receive the curtains. I had to plan my curtain-purchase well in advance of the actual-need. And customer service, even then, was abominable. I bought from Country Curtains because I willingly and voluntarily chose to put up with the customer mistreatment. Their curtains were that good. It was, thus, a conscious decision on my part to accept bad behavior in exchange for heavenly natural-fiber fabric curtains. In retrospect, I can see that the family business was creating its own retail hell, the millennial apocalypse we Americans were all supposed to be dreading.
I recall writing to this company, online, about the lousy customer service regarding a window shade that I had ordered circa 2005. The price was, of course, steep, but since it was a fabric shade custom-sized to my closet window, I rationalized the top-gouge cost. And it was supposedly Made in the USA. The wrong item was sent. The cost to ship it to me was just as exorbitant as the merchandise. And then the thing took forever to get from Massachusetts to California. Coming from China directly to me, the order would have taken less time! One begins to minimally understand the out-sourcing devil.
I got a snooty response to my customer complaint. Actually, the entire business was run as if it were a favor to the Customer that Country Curtains simply existed — to peddle their wares to the world for outrageous prices. Waverly Fabrics! Only here! Exclusively!
If your sales ploy is Only We Exist, the time will assuredly come when You no longer exist.
I informed Customer Service that I would never buy from them again.
And I meant it in 2005.
By those mid-2000s, those Waverly fabrics and gorgeous muslin curtains (the soft, weighty staple that started the company) had begun to feel cheap and thin. Polyester entered the fabrication fray. With sorrow, true fabric-lover sorrow, I went back on my vow, and I purchased, during the winter of 2008, what would be the last truly gorgeous curtains, full-price, from Country Curtains: Two pairs of deep chocolate brown velvet drapes, for the parlor in the Peach House. Their window-insulation value justified the extravagance.
Occasionally, I’d scour the online site, remembering what was, and what might have been. By 2010, this once-magnificent curtain company was peddling degraded fabrics, even more degrading customer service, and even higher shipping rates. During the more than 20 years of doing business with Country Curtains, I never encountered — A DISCOUNT CODE, or — in my dreams — A FREE SHIP CODE. Never a good-customer-discount. Never a discount!
I bought merchandise from that company because they'd had a lock on the best fabrics with the most beautiful designs of curtains. By the start of the Great Recession, this company blew its best chance at surviving the money malaise: they cheapened their product but kept the prices sky-high, along with that confiscatory progressively bracketed shipping rate, almost like a tax!
I’d long ago given up on any customer service, any incentive to buy at their site, any discount or even appreciation for a long-time customer. It wasn’t a Love-Hate relationship that I’d developed with this retailer. It bordered on pure malice.
For my mental and emotional health, I ceased purchasing from Country Curtains Online. And like the soft-hearted sentimental slob that I was, I went back to their website (that had begun selling vases and lamps and artwork) during the winter of 2012, just to see what might be new on the sale-chopping block. I quickly scooped up a slew of Tartan Valances by Waverly for my sunroom. Expertly made, exquisite material, sharply discounted, about 40% off.
The cost of shipping was still through-the-roof, but the slasher-sale price off-set the pain to my purse. I realized then, however, that Country Curtains itself was probably headed for the chopping block, even after reducing such high-quality goods.
My discovery this morning of yet another Legacy Small Business that has bit the dust because of inept, even rude, business practices; poor economic decisions; snooty attitudes toward the Customer; and the Heirs who blew it — prompted me to write this essay about yet another Great American Business gone bust.
Amazon, Wayfair, Hayneedle, You-Name-The-Online-Business — are not to blame for you stupidly running your business into the ground, then selling out to the Chinese dragon, and then receiving the retail death blow from the unexpected forces that are always out there in the world, business and otherwise. Situating a retail enterprise in Massachusetts, a state so aptly nick-named Taxachusetts, is perhaps a risk for any capital venture. It pays, in more ways than one, to keep abreast of how the world has changed, in your state, in America, and internationally. There’s a price to pay for living in yesterday and in yesteryear, especially when it comes to the retail bottom line.
Treating the customer as if you are doing her a favor is a guaranteed way to lose money, no matter what your business. Living in a real world is how to get ahead in business, and in life. Such a pragmatic approach might help any capitalist to keep more of his or her capital. I started Way-fairing because the ship had long ago sailed where Country Curtains was concerned. And I started sewing my own curtains long before serious competitors, online and for-real, to “CC”, such as Pottery Barn, showed up.
I’ll say one last thing about Country Curtains: they did not struggle nearly as much as the customer did, trying to buy their merchandise long-distance. It may be true that long-distance relationships don’t work, but I’m not ready to blame “distance" if the love was only on one side of the equation.