Sam & Sandy
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Sam is Palestinian with family in Ramallah. He has lived in the USA for more than 25 years. He and his cousin run a small convenience store on West Fourth Street in the middle of New York’s increasingly tony West Village. It has almost everything—from fancy cookies, canned goods and cleaning supplies, to charcoal and stomach remedies. For 15 years, I’ve bought newspapers, juice, quarts of milk and an occasional BLT (cooked by the Mexican counter man; after all, Sam is a good Muslim). Sam, his cousin, or younger relative, Ali, is on location from 4:00 in the morning to midnight, seven days a week. As this historic neighborhood has gentrified, the population density has declined. The brownstones that were cut up into small apartments 25 years ago have been restored into huge single-family houses for aging globetrotters, many of whom have more than one home. Sam sells coffee and sandwiches to the local residents’ workmen who are constantly upgrading the properties; and bottled drinks to the tourists coming to visit the ‘Sex in the City’ block. Street traffic may be up, but business is trending down.

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Immigrants have long been the back-bone of American retail entrepreneurship. Unlike Europe, there is no tradition of a merchant class; no long history of selling goods to a built-in clientele. In the new world, the willingness to invest one’s heart and soul, put in long hours, and often enlist family members to labor for nothing other than meals and clean sheets has been the price of entry. Like the family farm in the American frontier, it has been the family store for the immigrant classes in America for the last 125 years.

Immigrants across North America carved out segments and while there were exceptions the Greeks seemed to run diners; the Irish ran bars. The founders of both Bloomingdales and Gimbels were lower-class Jews selling schmatas. Even in the past 10 years, the Koreans run dry cleaners, the Pakistani run gas stations, and Indian families operate the aging motels along the highway. If you track graduates from America’s elite business schools, almost none take their first job working for retail companies. Retail on this side of the pond is still about homegrown grass roots talent, even if that home is a relatively new one.

But in emerging markets, retail has another connotation entirely. Retail attracts new, smart and ambitious workers whose social backgrounds, education and skin tone often don’t fit into a country’s elite. Retail is one place where advancement is possible based on individual merit. That advancement could take many forms. Global merchants expanding into emerging markets are surprised to find how willing and trainable a segment of their sales staff is. While it may be a temporary or seasonal gig for a student or out-of-work professional in the United States, in many emerging markets, retail is an honorable, respected professional path.

In contrast to the “mom and pop” stores in America, labor costs for major retailers remain one of the few controllable parts of the machine. Our software programs that predict labor needs are increasingly accurate. Modeling based on weather, day part and other factors let managers balance part-time workers to a T, keeping their hours just below the legal threshold of having to fork over health insurance and other benefits. Further, North American retail is non-unionized so the power still rests with management.

But this is a story about Sam and his bodega on West Fourth Street. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, the store closed a little early and then opened a few hours late, minus power. The milk and yogurt spoiled quickly and was thrown out. Yet the store stayed open through the power outage for the next five days. Cans of soup, toilet paper, paper towels, crackers and charcoal were all sold at the marked price. No gouging. Sam sold whatever he had, and the store became a place for some gossip and news. Did Sam make any money? Probably not, especially considering his perishable losses. How did the family get to work and get home to the housing project where they lived in Brooklyn? I don’t know. I do know that when the power came back, I walked in and handed Sam a hundred bucks. He took it with a very puzzled look on his face. And I wasn’t the only neighbor expressing gratitude.

Local still means something. A local bank understands its customers. At HSBC, which claims to be my local bank, my personal banker has changed four times in the past five years. I get e-mails asking for more of my business and wonder what they are smoking. The pharmacist in the Rite Aid down the street changes every year. These brands and their employees have no idea who their customers really are.

Sam’s lease is going to run out at some point in the not too distant future, and we’ll likely get another Marc Jacobs store. Sam’s bodega will go the way of the neighborhood laundromat and Chinese take-out restaurant. I’ll miss Sam and so will my neighbors, especially if Hurricane Sandy comes back for a visit.

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