Whatever Works

Saws and . . . envelopes?

The place and time? Chichicastenango, Guatemala in 2004, before I began documenting everything in pixels.

The source of the words? Cursive Spanish script painted in pale blue on the blindingly white exterior wall of a bricks-and-mortar store adjacent to the plywood-and-tarp outdoor market.

The speaker? A highly tentative me, reading aloud in Spanish-to-English translation mode. Questioning aloud, really. I mean, what sort of store sells saws and envelopes?

Against my expectation, my translation is bang-on. What *is* out to lunch is my business-school bias about what constitutes a coherent business model and whether it even matters.

Saws-and-envelopes: weird-in-theory combinations that work in boring old practice.

We see it in small stores in small communities the world over, selling whatever goods or services come to hand. Close to any lake resort, general stores sell beer, bait, bacon, and batteries. In a small town close to Ottawa a bakery-cum-gift-store-cum-Christmas-ornament-emporium is just up the street from an appliance-store-cum-meat-market.

Come in for a pork chop
and leave with a new washing machine.

We see it in larger centres. Some are so common (read “successful”) that the juxtaposition no longer even registers as odd. Airport stores sell books, snacks, and small gift/souvenir items.

Come in for the books,
leave with something with a higher margin.

Bookstores sell home decor (or is it vice versa?).

Improve your mind AND your home.

Pharmacies have beauty-product counters and embedded post offices.

Get better, look better,
write to your friends about it.

The saws-and-envelopes phenomenon extends beyond business. Consider bacon-wrapped dates. Or pancetta and Brussels sprouts. Or black-sesame ice cream (I have it on good authority).

Heck, consider men and women.

How did we get here? I will tell you. This week, Sycamore Partners, a New-York based conglomerate with holdings in clothing-and-footwear-and-handbag retailers, bought the home-improvement warehouse, Lowe’s.

T-shirts and t-squares?

Indeed, but wait: There’s more. They also own the office-products warehouse, Staples.

Yes! They now have a saws-and-envelopes division. I sure hope that figures somewhere in their corporate literature.

Post script: Thanks to reader JL Whitman for bringing Sycamore and the Lowe’s/Staples connection to my attention.

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8 Responses to Whatever Works

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Oh, damn! Isn’t there ANY store where I can shop for “saws and envelopes” and “other things”– as the Walrus said — that ISN’T owned by some American oligarch?

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I don’t suppose there’s any big store where you can avoid the oligarchy. Gotta go small and local.

  2. barbara carlson says:

    The General Store in the Old West must have been fun. “Hey, Clitus, I need me some bullets and cornmeal. And throw in a couple of emasculatomes.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – And throw in some buttons and dewormer. I’ve been in two old general stores (or what remains of them) and they are like our general hardware stores on steroids. Fun places to wander.

  3. It is funny how the conglomerates are coming closer, all of them, to becoming general stores and emporiums. I doubt that one-size-fits-all from the marketing end. How many Walmarts can the economy support? The Giant Tigers and LoweStaples will duke it out in the vast parking lots while the empty specialty shops look on, glassy-eyed, through their stripped manikins. (Cue Apocalyptic music by Shostakovitch.)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – I think the degree of retail specialization used to swing back and forth – favouring boutiques and knowledgeable service one decade and selection and low price the next. Rinse, repeat, as customers drifted to the benefits they didn’t get from one business model. Conglomerations complicate that pattern, for sure. I hope it doesn’t end in apocalypse.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – thanks for the mention. It’s always good to be “mentioned in dispatches”.

    Now consider this. Today a lot of shopping is done online. You order what you want from a picture and description you see on your computer screen and the item arrives at your door in a package – and you wonder if it will be what you wanted/needed when you open the package. When I was a kid, my mother did the same thing, only the picture and description were in an Eaton’s or Sears Catalogue – and you still wonder if it will fit or fill the need until you open the package. Things may change, but not that much.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – 🙂 Yes, I know people who vividly remember the Sears catalogue, especially. I don’t remember it figuring much in our home, but we lived in Edmonton. It’s been a long-ish cycle that has brought us to this point of close-to-convergence, but we do seem to be cycling.

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