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Adventures in Retailing Part VII:
The Search for Dave


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
February 13, 2006

Sitting up close to a terminal in a hunched over position is bad for you. That is why I switched from a 19-inch monitor to 30-inch model. Not only can I manipulate massive spreadsheets and juggle PowerPoint slides around like a demon, I can work from a comfortable chair at a safe distance of five feet from my monitor. Good-bye headaches and backaches, hello productivity. (By the way, Microsoft has apparently conducted a study that shows that large monitors make people more productive.)

There is one problem with being so far from the monitor. While my keyboard rests comfortably in my lap, there is no place for a pointing device that is not integrated into the keyboard. Even a trackball or a wireless gyroscopic mouse needs somewhere solid to sit.

I approached the pointing device problem by improvising. My current pointing device of choice is Microsoft's elite wireless optical mouse (it comes with a not-so-elite wireless keyboard that likes to drop characters at random, I do "serious writing"—such as this commentary—with a hard-wired Sony OEM keyboard.) None of my improvised solutions was satisfactory because in order for the ergonomics to work for me the surface that supports the mouse must be an exact height (to the angstrom) of somewhere between 21 and 22 inches. What I needed was an adjustable side table. I did not know it, because I had never heard of him, but I needed Dave (actually, DAVE).

I had frequented all of the local office supply stores (Staples, OfficeMax, and even the University at Albany bookstore) and found nothing that would do the trick. I was, however, going to Boston in the beginning of January to attend the American Finance Association meetings.

Aside from running into the few old colleagues who still attended such get-togethers, my goal was to find a paper upon which to base a Financial Engineering News column. (I was successful on that count and the result will appear both in Financial Engineering News and on in early March.) Moreover, I figured that I could get at least two adventures in retailing out of the trip. After all, I would be spending three days in what is essentially a giant shopping mall with office buildings, hotels, and a convention center connected to it.

I can drive about six miles south to I-90 from where I live and then shoot directly into downtown Boston while catching up on three hours of podcasts. I emerge within a hundred years of the entrance to the Copley Place garage where I usually park my car. This time, I took two detours in the interests of retailing.

My first detour was to Prime Outlets of Lee, Massachusetts. I had seen signs for it ever since it sprouted up something like ten years ago, but I had never paid it a visit.

Now that I have been there, the best thing that I can say about it is that it is real close to the Mass Pike. I was among a handful of apparent shoppers there (perhaps everyone there was trolling for website content) and it was easy to see why it was a ghost mall. Yes, it was a weekday in winter, but I have been to Woodbury Common at similar times and, short of a blizzard, by eleven in the morning all the good parking spaces there are gone.

The problem with Prime Outlets of Lee is that it has everything that is bad about outlet malls and nothing that is good. As I have noted earlier, most of what is in any outlet mall is overpriced junk poorly disguised as bargains. A good outlet mall has the occasional great deal, but it takes some shopping savvy to unearth it. The Lee mall was all chaff and no wheat. Back to the car. Next stop, Woburn.

When I lived in Cambridge in what seems like Pleistocene times, one of my favorite Harvard Square stores was Charette. Nominally an art supply store, it was a warehouse of goodies for the emerging yuppie class. I got several of the obligatory industrial-grade architect's lamps there. They are built to last—I still have two Luxo models in service and they are going strong after more than twenty years. (I suspect the rest of my collection is somewhere in the basement, though I am certain that one of the cheaper models I had died of spring failure.) I thought that Charrette would be a good bet for an adjustable height side table because they were into things that adjust.

I should have suspected that something was amiss when I went to the Charrette website and could not find any evidence of a Harvard Square store. Their main store (and corporate headquarters) was still in Woburn. I had never been there, but there is a first time for everything.

It had been at least fifteen years since I last drove on Route 128 north of Lexington. It was unrecognizable. Starting with the Burlington Mall, which used to be a retail oasis, it is wall-to-wall retail all the way to Woburn (and probably beyond). Instantly upon entering the Charrette store I knew that my 40-minute side trip had been a total waste of time. I will not waste any more time by describing what was there other than to say that it included nothing that I needed.

After I finally surfaced in Boston, parked my car, and checked into my hotel, I wandered into mall. It is technically two interconnected malls (Copley Place and the Shops at Prudential Center), but it has the feeling of being a single mall for people who are really into walking. It also has the feeling of being largely underground even though it is completely aboveground. I took some notes on the mall, but it was, in its own way, almost as disappointing as the Lee outlet mall. I did notice that any store with a European capital in its name was sure to be a rip-off, but it was more an adventure in boredom than in retailing. Considering that Boston began as a city of merchants who had escaped from an entire country of merchants, it has always provided a great retailing experience, but one had to go outside and over to Newbury Street to experience that. I did, but it is not webworthy.

The indoor mall experience, however, was not a total waste of time. At the entrance to the Levenger store in Prudential Center I saw something that lay beyond my once-fertile imagination. It was the Scooter Desk, an adjustable height laptop computer desk that is designed to "scoot" over one's chair. There were just two problems with it: Even at its lowest height it was too high for my original intended use and it cost $348 for something that any sane person would think should cost $98 tops (and only that much because of the wood surface that was probably just a thin veneer.) To add that old cliché insult to injury, one had to construct Scooter oneself. For $348, they could at least send someone over to build it for me.

Scooter did give me an idea. Having never bothered to enable the web-surfing features of my cell phone, I had to wait until I got to my hotel room to Google for similar products that were better suited to my purposes and would not make me feel like a real sucker for buying them. I do not remember what search I ran to find it, but up popped DAVE and he cost a mere $29.95. (Actually, $34.95, but I'm too lazy to report Ikea to the appropriate federal or state authority.)

But there was a catch. No mail order. I would have to pay a personal visit to Ikea to procure him (or get real lucky on eBay). Adventures in retailing, indeed. Stay tuned next time for my visits—it took two—to the Ikea in Stoughton, Massachusetts to get DAVE (and his cousin, LACK).

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to