Mark Shapiro: Small Business

"Rama what?"

"Ramazzotti. It's an Italian liqueur. Do you have it?"

"Um, hold on." Someone else came on the line.

"Hi, can I help you?" Ugh, I started over.

"Yes, I'm wondering if you have Ramazzotti?"

"Rama"¦zotti," she mouthed carefully, "No, I don't think so." There was a pause where I was naive enough to think she would offer to special order it. Silence.

"Um, maybe you could order it for me?"

"Maybe," she said, "I can either take down your information and have someone call you back, or you can call during the day before 4 p.m. and ask one of the owners. You'd have a better chance calling back."

I'd have a better what?

Apparently, service these days is a matter of odds. I try my luck, hopeful that mediocrity will not prevail. Is the message on the owner's to-do list, a sticky note, a napkin? Impossible to tell. I have to leave it on my to-do list, because I can't trust that it's handled. Unserved, I'm still holding the ball, just because I could not be given a real promise.

I don't hear anything for two days, it's still on my list, so I exercise my "better chance" and am able to get a hold of an owner. Funny, I don't feel lucky. It takes about 5 minutes. He looks the product up for me and says he can order it, but he can't tell me how long it will take. "Could take two weeks, could take two months," he says. Ugh.

The 21st Amendment repealed the prohibition in 1933, but it also gave state governments the choice to control the distribution of alcoholic beverages. There are 18 "monopoly states" that choose to exercise such control in various ways, and Oregon is one of them. This why Medford has only 3 liquor stores. It's legislated by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission on a per capita basis. Phoenix, Talent and Ashland each have one: monopolies in their trading areas in a socialized system, unsurprisingly encouraging non-competitive results.

I'm buying the Ramazzotti as a birthday present. It was three weeks away, so I had to hedge my bet. This Rogue Valley liquor storeowner assured me there was no way to track the order's progress. He didn't even seem to feel bad about it — that's just the way it was. So I order a bottle online that would ship from New Jersey. It took me about five minutes and I didn't have to talk to anyone. Even with shipping, the price seemed OK: $28.46. This time, I knew which type of Ramazzotti I bought (I saw the picture) and got a tracking number to boot. Five minutes. Done. Delivered to my door in a week.

About 3 weeks after the birthday, I get a call from the liquor storeowner: the Ramazzotti was in. It had been 6 weeks since the order. I decided to buy a bottle for myself, happy to enjoy the benefits of buying local and not paying for cross country shipping costs.

I ask the clerk behind the desk where Ramazzotti was.

"Rama what?" He didn't even get up off the box he sat on in the back.

"It was special ordered "¦ I got a call "¦?"

"Oh yeah "¦ um, let me look." Minutes go by. A team is formed. They found the empty box-a clue! More minutes. An older man at a card table offers me a sample of spiced rum. "No, thank you." I need to get out of here. "Oh here it is, on the shelf. Ha ha." Finally. I open up my wallet. How much? $31.50. Hmm.

There's a lot of talk about buying local and supporting the community in the valley. One would think that a brick and mortar store has an enormous customer service advantage over faceless Internet commerce. What is not often appreciated in this age of mediocrity, is that human beings who don't really care are more a liability than an asset. I'm happy to pay a little more for attentive service, but I how can I justify the additional energetic, emotional, and financial expense when this is the result? To altruistically support a mediocre aspect of the community? This is not the basis of a healthy economy, no matter how many burning man veterans say so.

Mark Shapiro is a small business consultant and writer in Ashland whose work can be seen at www.emergentbusiness.net