How to Quit Your Day Job

Why retailers in small town Spain value “welcome” over “wow”
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Posted April 28, 2014

My parents are the kind of retirees the golden years were made for. They gleefully sifted through their belongings, starting around 55, sold their house of 30 years, and left suburbia behind for a quiet lakeside cottage where they now kayak, garden, hike and entertain.

Kind of makes you want to quit your day job, doesn’t it?

There is one drawback: They’re starved for shopping. The small town they live near couldn’t even support a Pizza Hut. It’s never seen a Starbucks or even, to be honest, a good grocery store. The very sight of a Trader Joe’s is enough to make them veer their car off the road.

So when they packed themselves off to Spain last month, eating out was high on their to-do list.

The whitewashed town they chose had dozens of outdoor eateries wedged among orange trees and narrow streets. When I visited them, they had their pick of coffee shops, and I assumed they’d pick the closest, busiest option, a bustling little joint whose owner delivered double shots of espresso and steamed milk to the town’s center square.

They didn’t.

Instead, they favored the unlikeliest of places: a 15-seat café and frame shop a long, steep walk from their rental. Its owner dished out breakfast and coffee, pausing to discuss the merits of wood versus metal frames, and the particular hues and widths that might suit the photos and canvases diners carted in.

Velcroed to the wall, dozens of samples demonstrated a range of wood and metallic finishes.

My parents didn’t need anything framed (half of their belongings are currently at Goodwill), but this unlikely store intrigued them. The owner, they decided, must be both honest and hardworking to be dually devoted to this unlikely pairing of trades.

The clincher: We ordered scrambled tomato and egg pitufos, or finger sandwiches, one morning. The owner didn’t have any eggs, but sent a cheerful waiter down the street, serving up a fresh meal just minutes later.

We had coffee there every morning that week.

When we talk about experience in retail, there are so many expensive examples: grocery stores with gourmet cooking demonstrations, luxe outlets with live-broadcast fashion shows, or apothecary-style cosmetics shops where a “fragrance concierge” hand-mixes a custom-blended scent based on your stature, shoe color and astrological sign.

I’d like to know what my signature fragrance is, I guess (5’6”, black and Aries, Ms. Concierge), but is that the experience we’re seeking for everyday shopping?

Traveling abroad shakes your self-confidence at first. New language, new people, new norms. In Spain, the “experience” my parents and I wanted was mainly comfort – an open personality, a welcoming wait staff.

And that’s not so different back home. Some days, we want to be wowed. But more than anything, we want our third places to be easy, comfortable and unique. That might mean gourmet cooking classes every Friday, but it can also be as simple as a piping-hot pitufo, served with a smile.