In an attempt to put the demise of Hechinger Co. in perspective, I noted in last Monday's column that while it's true Hechinger lost substantial market share to more aggressive competitors, management made a number of mistakes from which the company never recovered.
Now Hechinger would proceed with the liquidation of its stores and the second-guessing and criticism that had engulfed it in recent years would end. Or, so I thought.
I certainly didn't anticipate the bitter reaction by so many readers who still bear resentment toward Hechinger. It's as though the company had cheated them or barred them from its stores. Rarely has there been such hostility and anger directed at a company that hasn't been accused of polluting the environment, discriminating in the workplace or knowingly selling a product that may be harmful to consumers.
The following examples from lengthy voice-mail messages are fairly typical of an outpouring of anti-Hechinger sentiment.
"[Hechinger] was done in by poor quality of service, surly people and lack of products in the stores. When you have people in upper Northwest, for example, driving all the way to Virginia or Gaithersburg to go to the Home Depot, something's wrong."
"They weren't done in by anything whatsoever but cheapness in educating sales staff the way Home Depot does. It's no tragedy. The place was a dump. They deserved to go down and, hopefully, Home Depot and other companies who provide quality services and with knowledgeable personnel will move into [Hechinger's] old locations."
"It's just too bad that a local store like that would be so arrogant toward Washingtonians, who had supported them for years and years."
Several other callers were equally bitter in their denunciations of Hechinger, many of them agreeing with published accounts of readers' reactions to the news that Hechinger will liquidate its chain of home improvement stores and go out of business.
Referring to Hechinger and other local retailers that have closed in recent years, one caller asserted in a voice-mail message that those companies failed as a result of poor customer service and not because they were driven out of business by much bigger national retail chains.
"These stores basically suffered from a lack of customer service more than anything else and essentially a lack of good merchandising. In [the Washington] area, service is sometimes deficient. I think that's why some of these businesses are not doing very well."
Some retailers no doubt lost market share by failing to emphasize the importance of customer service. Nonetheless the record clearly shows that service was not a factor in the closings of most prominent local retail chains over the past 20 years.
Peoples, Drug Fair and Dart Drug -- the three drug chains that dominated the local market until the 1980s -- were sold voluntarily by their owners.
The parent company of the Garfinckel's department store chain was acquired in a hostile takeover. Garfinckel's was subsequently sold at least twice before new owners closed it.
Woodward & Lothrop, Washington's leading department store chain until a few years ago, was sold when management agreed to take the company private and sell it to a new owner. Woodies subsequently collapsed under the weight of a huge debt load.
Hartmarx Corp. of Chicago bought the Raleighs apparel chain and subsequently closed it. And, like most catalogue showroom companies, W. Bell & Co. was forced to close as the entire industry shrank in the face of competition from other retail segments.
The quality of service at Hechinger had obviously deteriorated by the time it was sold two years ago. But that by itself didn't weaken Hechinger. Several factors contributed to its ultimate demise, not the least of which was a succession of costly mistakes by management in an attempt to expand and compete in an industry that had become far more competitive than management apparently realized.
Hechinger was once a highly successful company that served Washington area consumers well for the better part of eight decades. The Hechinger family, which controlled the company before selling it two years ago, made significant contributions not only to the local economy but to the quality of life in the area -- culturally, politically and in other ways, including the leadership it showed in providing equal access and equal opportunity for those who had been denied such things.
In the final analysis, the Hechinger family lost a great deal more than consumers who continue to complain about service at a company that no longer exists.
At least those consumers still have choices in Home Depot and Lowe's, among others. Why continue to spit on the Hechinger name?