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When Brick & Mortar Loses

11 May, 2011 (14:38) | Rants, Twitter | By: hitch

This all started churning through my head today after I dropped by a Borders on my way to lunch (I left my book at home and I like to read at lunch. Sue me) only to discover that they didn’t have a single one of the books I wanted. They had others by the same author, but none of their new books and only half of most series. I realised upon walking away that once I left the store they’d lost my business for those books. Why? Because as soon as I have to wait I’m better off going to Amazon.

Are physical stores on their way out? Has the Internet “won”? SHOULD it?

My gut reactions to these questions are “No”, “It’s not a zero sum game”, and “No”, in that order. I like having a nice little downtown area to be in, I like to go to stores and browse and buy things. And that’s a large part of the issue. Browsing. When I know what I want and I know how much it should cost and I don’t need any help and I don’t need it right this minute I’ll shout “To the Interwebs!” and head on over to Amazon or wherever I can get something for the lowest price that I still think is a reputable store (okay, usually Amazon)

When I don’t know anything and none of my friends are knowledgeable and I don’t have a good, reliable source of information I want to go to a store to buy something. When I just want to go in and look around and see what’s up and what’s new and just take it all in…you can’t really beat a physical storefront for that.

That seems like a recipe for disaster for brick-and-mortar businesses (Hey look – it’s the inquisitive people who just want to look around!), but I don’t think it has to be. You see, for a long time the trend has been away from the little specialty shops that proprietors curated and loved and tended like a garden and towards big-box mega stores like Target, Borders, Costco, etc. The only way to compete has been to genericize and cater to the masses. Every store starts to look like every other store and God help you if you don’t give enough shelf space to the latest craze that’s sweeping the nation. You don’t really care about it, but it sells and you have to pay the bills. But the only reason anyone still comes into your store is that you’ve got those little things way in the back that Target doesn’t carry, the things you ordered a box of once because they were exactly the sort of thing that people who like that sort of thing would like, and hey! your store is for people that like that sort of thing, right? The unfortunate result is that you don’t really have a differentiator and the big-box places have two – price and selection. And so little places vanish.

But along comes the Internet and whoops, there goes Barnes & Noble. There goes Borders. And, I suspect before long, there goes Target and WalMart.
After what they did to the little guys, though, I can’t feel much sympathy for the great big box stores.

Borders and B&N crushed the little independent book stores out of existence by being bigger and more capable of carrying more and different books. You only had one store place to go to get the books for the kids’ reading list, a cookbook, the biography your dad wanted to read, a couple of space operas and a good beach read. And it was pretty great. Anything they didn’t have they could order and you’d be able to swing by and pick it up in about a week.

Maybe two. Keep checking back.

Along comes Amazon. The reason I go to Amazon first is, again, convenience. They’ve managed to make a name out of being the one-stop-shop for everything. And if they don’t stock it they probably partner with someone who does and the item will still show up on their site. Depending on your shipping options you’ll have it in a week – for free, usually – or tomorrow. They’ve even got a recommendation service for things which people who like that sort of thing will like!

And yet, I don’t do all my shopping on Amazon.

Why not? Am I one of those people who really really wants to support local businesses and will therefore give them my money even when it costs more and is less convenient * ?

Yes, to some extent. But I’m doing so in my own self interest.

I’m one of those people who, when I go into a store and ask someone to tell me about something and recommend a particular product, will probably end up
buying from that store **. If I can rely on expert advice whenever I go in, I’ll buy there. In part because I know that if I don’t, that expert advice will go away when the store closes down.

I’m one of those people who, when I find a source for something I’m interested in from someone who loves what I love, I will go there – in part because I know that if they love what they do I’m going to get the right product. When I bought my snowboard from a local store they set us up with exactly what we needed. No upsell and no BS. Because they love what they do and they want everyone to have that experience.

I’m one of those people who likes to go into a store that sells interesting stuff that I might never have been aware existed. When you’re an enthusiast who runs a store filled with your own enthusiasm you probably have things that Amazon never dreamed of – because you’ve got years of experience doing this and you know that that special piece there that everyone loves? Well, after about three years it just falls apart, but this one that’s a bit uglier never goes wrong.

What I’m trying to say is that the era of the Internet in retail appears to be the death knell for the big box and a tremendous opportunity for the entrepreneur with a storefront and a passion.

I really hope I’m right.

* Word of caution – if it’s TOO inconvenient I don’t much care how great it is that you’re a local small business. If you’re only open hours that I’m at work then you appear not to WANT to take my money.

** This assumes that I don’t get a heady whiff of fresh BS from their explanation.

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