My first memory of commerce had nothing to do with the actual transaction of money for goods. No, my first memories are relational - specifically how Rose treated my grandparents while we ate dinner at Alpine Restaurant inside the Creston Park Mall. I have no idea how much the meal cost, how big or little the tip my grandpa left, or if they felt they received a decent value for the money spent. Rose gave my grandpa the business and he loved every minute of it. In turn, he gave it back. That's why I loved going with them each week.

The transactional piece is always the easy part. Online retailing makes it almost an afterthought and online shopping doesn’t need to bother with the relational part of commerce. Sadly, I have seen the brick and mortar retail landscape lose what made them special. At many retailers, I am only a transaction. I started seeing it after I made my first Amazon purchase in the spring of 1998…yikes I am a 20 year Amazon subscriber. If you’re at a chain/mega store, the transaction is always key. The interaction is rarely highlighted. Remember the Wal-Mart greeters in the 1990s? They’d welcome you. They typically asked how you were. In my opinion, it was Sam Walton’s attempt to keep mega commerce somewhat relational. Have you walked into a mega store recently? It’s tough to get eye contact let alone a response if I initial the ‘hello’. It's all about the transaction and for this consumer, a transaction can be made online.

Sadly, a local grocer that I’ve frequented weekly since I tagged along with mom has taken the relational part of commerce completely out of my shopping experience. I am a south side entrance Woodmans shopper. My least favorite part at the grocery store is the actual shopping but I have always enjoyed interacting with the checkout crew. We have some of the best in the business right here in Janesville. Recently, high efficiency automation has taken out every checker on the south side and I needed to alter my experience if I wanted a choice. High risk for a retailer - and I have taken some of my transactional spend to other grocers who value relationships. For the record, I have started to make the shift in my route within the store and was able to catch-up one of the best cashiers at Woodmans last week.

Yes, it’s easy to point out faults with ‘majors’ and high volume stores but what about local? As most readers know, I go out of my way to support local niche retailers, restaurants and farmers markets. Why? Why do I frequent Italian House, Cozy Inn and Mac’s Pizza Shack? I have dozens of choices for pasta, pizza and Chinese in this town. I can go online and have something delivered in 30 minutes. Why bother? Three reasons: Edmund at I-House, Erika at Mac’s and Amanda at Cozy. They are relationship-focused owners. If Edmund is in the building my visit is typically extended by 10 or 15 minutes. I know he cares about the bottom line but when he’s talking to me it’s about the relationship. That’s why I will always choose Italian House over others. Same with Erika at Mac’s. At Cozy, Amanda always checks in with us. She asks about our family and is interested in what’s going on in our world. It’s an easy choice for me when I have a craving for Chinese food.

I know Boston Store isn’t local and they will soon exit our community but the reason I purchase my menswear at Boston Store over most locations is because of the customer service touch that Robert offers. He’s always there to help and offers much more than just pricing. I enjoy interacting with him. It’s not the same as the ‘good old days’ walking into Baxter’s at the mall but I like the interaction..and will definitely miss it when the doors close.

I would do this blog injustice if I didn’t mention downtown and Arise. The city has offered a TIF district, businesses have approved a BID district and infrastructure is being supported multiple ways - including through Forward Janesville. That is the easy part. The transaction. Where the rubber meets the road will be how retailers relate to their customers. I’ve seen glimpses of hope when I stop at Bodacious and grab a bottle or five of olive oil. It’s not an interaction like Rose and grandpa but I see a start. I see the beginnings of relationships at Velvet and Tulle Boutique. My wife and I stop in regularly.

Relationship and commerce isn’t intuitive. Not everyone will ‘get it’. I truly believe the success of Arise won’t come from water features, pedestrian bridges or festival streets. They will certainly make the area more appealing. Success with Arise will come through knocking down the barrier of seeing a customer as a transaction and understanding the value of a relationship. Will it be harder? Of course it will. Let Amazon deal with the transaction. Build something special downtown. I certainly hope relationships are not forgotten as the initial growth starts.

Am I expecting too much? I don’t believe I am. I saw first-hand how relationships grew a business when I worked for the Boughton family at Skatin’ Place. If they were all about transactions, the business wouldn’t have weathered the uncertain times of the 1980s. Instead, the Boughton’s grew that family business because of the relationships that were built. I still have friends from that place.

What about you? Are you a transactional or relational shopper? Please comment on Facebook and Twitter. I’d love to read your responses and how you shop.

Steve Knox was born and raised in Janesville before landing back in the city later in life. This Generation X guy writes on Janesville and beyond. Steve is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff. His opinion is not necessarily that of the The Gazette staff or management.

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