Chris Baldus: The prairie doesn’t have a mountain

Published 8:14 am Wednesday, September 20, 2017

She sounds like a sweet lady who was just looking for a 2017 muscle car.

I think the Beach Boys had a song about her. They just had the wrong town, state and general topography. You need to forgive folks in California, though, they tend to get a bit lost when it comes to geography anyway. Remember the “Little House on the Prairie” episode when Laura ran away from home — in southern Minnesota — and hid on a mountain where the angel Ernest Borgnine lived?

Yes, I know. Ernest either lived on the East or West Coast. It stretches the limits of imagination to think he lived on one of the peaks in the Walnut Grove Mountain Range. Anyone with children who has spent an afternoon in southwestern Minnesota knows Laura could just as well have run away along Plum Creek, caught the Cottonwood River and disappeared all the way to the Mississippi. Ernest could have been there.

Email newsletter signup

OK, back to the point. We have been hearing back from readers of our Page 1 report on Saturday, “Austin struggles as shoppers opt to travel.” Our car shopper wanted to point out a key problem facing Austin.

“You know what Austin could do to improve the shopping experience here? Better customer service,” said the lifelong Austin resident.

She tried to buy her muscle car here, she said. She could have.

“I ended up in Albert Lea,” she said. “You would not believe the customer service over there. It was unbelievable.”

OK, that makes me cringe a bit as someone wanting the best for Austin.

I realize that I have only her side of the story here. She possibility could have gone one spoiler or pinstripe demand too far, but I also understand how one person’s poor experience can trump 100 good experiences in the world of retail business. It’s rough.

“They will service that car,” she said of her out-of-town dealer. “And while I’m there, I will go over to the mall and shop. And everything is customer service. It’s the way you treat people, and that is lacking here in Austin, big time.”

This might not sound like good news, but it is. This is a manageable problem, a realistic improvement.

Comments filling our Facebook page pose more challenges, however.

A woman named Carole wrote: “I shop out of town because I want stores. I want Menard’s, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Bath and Body Works, Bed, Bath and Beyond. Hobby Lobby, Michaels, shoe stores, clothing stores. Austin can’t supply what I need and want. I haven’t seen where Austin has tried to get hometown shopping, so we are forced to go out of town for any kind of variety and quality.”

I can’t help thinking that all of those businesses have overpowering brands that in their absence here obscures what we have, not to mention whether they would be a good investment to try to attract.

Fair or not, commenters were critical of city government efforts to support and attract retailers.

“They refuse to help the little guys and yet they wonder why they are all closing,” a commenter named Derek wrote.

They also took aim at inconvenient business hours (being closed when shoppers actually are off work), inadequate signage, lack of product variety and general dissatisfaction and frustration. This is where it’s traditional to slide into defensive mode. It’s hard not to.

Then in the middle of it all is Dan Mueller’s comment. He is serving his community on the Austin Human Rights Commission. He no doubt cares about this community.

“Austin does certainly have a distinctly different attitude with a mix of people who have lived here their whole lives and those who relocated here from throughout the U.S. and world,” he wrote. “This truth of purchasing outside the community is true for most demographic groups. Nothing can change unless people start spending local or investing local. Major retailers will not come, and the ones we have, have forced out many small businesses.

“What can reverse this? Incentives for business development, immigrant and refugee business training, engaging the consumer and change the community atmosphere?” he continued. “Negative perceptions without a plan or action do not facilitate growth and Austin is a growing community. How do we tap into that potential?”

His comment had four likes as of 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Tallying nine likes by then was the comment from a girl named Leni: “Get a place where we can shop for decent clothes. Bring back Target! You give us no choice but to shop out of town.”

I understand the frustration, but Target tried it here and left. Maybe it just doesn’t fit here, like those Walnut Grove mountains Hollywood created. They have the look and the stature they thought they needed to pull off the story. They wanted a seminal, spiritual experience, like Charlton Heston on the Ten Commandments mountain.

We have a river valley and prairies. Maybe we should not fret about made-for-TV mountains. Our retail reality should look different, because we are.