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What's the matter with Ellsworth?

POSTED: December 16, 2011 7:00 a.m.

Two weeks ago we republished in the Reporter by request of an Ellsworth merchant an article by William Allen White in reply to an invitation from the Lumbermen’s Convention to address them on the subject of the influence of the mail order house on the small town. We quote part of the address as follows:
“The preservation of the home trade to the home town carries with it the preservation of many of our American Institutions … It seems to me that a lot of good things in American life will pass if the country town passes. And it will just as surely as centralization of retail mail order business in cities continues … To sacrifice our neighbor — the man who helps the town with its taxes, with its public business, with its myriad activities for neighborly righteousness — to sacrifice that man and his business for the mere sake of saving a dollar’s worth of goods Is just as unpatriotic as it is to spit at the flag. … The motto of the mail order house is every man for himself and the devil take the hindermost — and you bet the devil will.”
That the mail order houses will drive the small towns out of existence hardly seems likely, but that they are making great inroads on the business of the country merchants, no one can deny.
And why is this? The whole story is in printer’s ink. The mail order people use it unsparingly and continuously, in good season and bad. The ever present catalogue is always at hand, with the prices plainly marked.
It is the continual hammering on the one subject that brings results. The country merchant puts an ad in his home paper at Christmas and irregular intervals during the year, at an expense of from $5 to $25 and then wonders why he doesn’t get the same result as the men who have invested $500 in the same territory.
Take the Reporter, for instance; it has a bona fide circulation of 1,600 — 1,300 right here in Ellsworth County, the majority within trading distance of town. We have not done to exceed $40 worth of advertising since Christmas, and that has been done almost entirely by three firms. One would almost conclude the merchants did not want the home trade.
They say this is a bad year and that the people haven’t the money to spend. Conditions are the same all over Kansas and yet the Osborne Farmer, the Russell Record, the Russell Reformer, the Wilson Echo, the Lincoln Republican and Lincoln Sentinel and even the Holyrood Banner have more advertising than the Ellsworth papers.
The bulk of the advertising in the Ellsworth papers is done by four or five firms. Some of the merchants here do not advertise from one end of the year to the other. Some of them have told us that they don’t believe in advertising. One of the heaviest advertisers said to us at the close of the past year that he was getting mighty tired of doing all the advertising for Ellsworth. As he said, he brought the people to this town and the others profited as much as he, without any expense to them, which is all true.
Ellsworth has long enjoyed the unenviable reputation of being one of the poorest advertising towns in the country. We have been told this by a number of men who have worked in this office; men who have worked at their trade of printer all over the country and knew what they were talking about. Not that we needed to be told at all.
The late Arthur Larkin was a firm believer in advertising, and that his belief was founded on sound principles is attested by the tremendous success he achieved in the mercantile business and the fortune he acquired largely from that source. Mr. Larkin was a heavy advertiser not only in the newspapers, but in other ways. When he retired from active business one of our subscribers dropped into the office and said he was glad Mr. Larkin was going out of business, because we would now have plenty of space to give to news matter instead of having the paper filled up with Larkin’s advertisements. We are extremely sorry to say that there has never been occasion for that remark to be made again.
The mail order houses are doing a large business in this county. That cannot be denied. As long as they are in business and advertise their merchandise day in and day out, while the country town merchant refuses to advertise, just so long will they continue to get a certain amount of business that ought to remain at home. The merchants can talk about mail order houses all they please; they can call them names; they can tell the people that they mean the ruination of the small town; they can preach about patriotism and treason and all that, but when they match a man’s patriotism against his pocket book, then patriotism is going to get a mighty healthy wallop.
If the merchants of Ellsworth County don’t know how to combat the mail order houses and keep all the trade at home, we will tell them the secret.
Get the right kind of merchandise, put the right prices on it, and then advertise.
That is something that many merchants don’t do. And yet they wonder why the list of mail order customers is daily growing larger. The answer is not far to seek.

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