Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Business and Church

I grew up on the edge of a small Saskatchewan town.  There were four grocery stores and three churches.  One store was owned by a cousin quite a few years older than myself, another by an old friend of my family, another was owned by a Catholic family and the fourth was the local Co-op.

The three churches were the United Church of Canada, the Roman Catholic and the Anglican.  The United Church was by far the largest and the Anglican the smallest.  My family was Anglican.  Fifty to sixty years ago there were enough mouths to feed in the town and the surrounding farms to support all four stores.  It would be too much to say that relations between the stores were always cordial, but cut-throat competition was unheard of.

Slowly things began to change.  Gravel highways were paved, and travel to the city became more common.  Young people from the farms went to the cities to further their education and stayed to work.  Small farmers sold out to their neighbours and moved to the cities.  Families had fewer children.  As the population of the surrounding countryside slowly shrank, the owners of the grocery stores began to feel pressure on their profit margins.

One day there was an electrical short circuit at our friend’s store, starting a fire.  The bell on the town hall was rung, the town’s fire engine and water wagon were rushed to the scene, and in true small town neighbourliness every able bodied man and youth converged on the scene to fight this fire.  In their zeal to help, they got the fire hoses tangled up.  By the time they got them untangled the store was past saving.  It was not rebuilt.

The other stores breathed a little easier, but the local market continued to shrink.  One day a lady came to my cousin’s store to ask him to place an ad in a Catholic periodical.  He was not interested.  She told him that if he did not buy an ad the Catholic people would be told to stop buying at his store.  He didn’t take it seriously, but one by one his 23 Catholic customers stopped coming into his store.  Some were among his best friends, and they remained friends, but the priest had told them they should support the business owned by a Catholic and they felt pressed to do so.

The United Church and the Co-op were both products of the social gospel movement, resulting in a similar commitment from the United Church people to support the Co-op.  That left my cousin with the Anglicans and a few people of other religious persuasions, or none at all.  He reduced the shelf space devoted to groceries and stocked clothing and dry goods, items where he had no competition from the Catholic or social gospel people.  This provided a livelihood for a number of years.  My cousin retired years ago, as did the Catholic store owner.  Today, the town has the same three churches, but only one grocery store, the Co-op.

Thirty years ago I was manager of a grain elevator in another prairie town.  There was one other elevator in this town, a Pool (a grain handling co-op).  It happened one summer that the Pool manager was incapacitated by health problems, leaving the elevator closed at a time when farmers wanted to deliver grain.  Many of the Pool customers hauled their grain to my elevator.  One of those farmers watched closely as I sampled and tested his grain, and then remarked: “I know I’m being cheated on every bushel of grain I haul to the Pool.  But I can’t help it, I believe in the Pool!”

This man was typical of a large number of prairie people who were strong believers in the co-operative principle.  There was a time when Co-op’s knew that people would deal with them no matter what kind of service they got.  Consequently, Co-op employees had no incentive to make any special efforts to serve their customers.  Times have changed, realism has triumphed over idealism.  Co-op stores have discovered customer service.  The Pool elevators are no more, the elevators now belong to a stock exchange listed company.

Thinking over this little bit of history has raised a question in my mind.  When I go into business, should members of my church feel obligated to do business with me?  Should I expect the deacons to drop a few gentle hints that brethren should support my business rather than a competitor?

Having a captive market may sound like a sure road to success.  But I think I know myself well enough to admit that the quality of service to my customers would tend to go downhill if I could take it for granted that most of them would deal with me even if I made no special effort to see that their needs were being met.  A captive market begets mediocrity.

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