Last Sunday I was in the basement of Old Navy looking for size 4T basic pants. Girls’ clothes as well as men’s for that matter were relocated to the basement, during reconstruction of the third floor. And of course, they had nothing in stock in basic pants, other than capris and leggings. The rest of the selections were all swimwear, novelty T-shirts, and sandals. It’s 53 degrees out in San Francisco, and Old Navy wants me to think I want to buy summer clothes. It was then that the immortal words of Gary Whitta wafted back through my brain. No, not his brilliant dialogue from The Book of Eli. But rather, his pithy Google+ summation of IRL retail, “Best Buy is an awful, customer-unfriendly dinosaur that needs to die.”
Gary was responding to this then-current January article by Larry Downes in Forbes, taking apart Best Buy. My reflex was to deny this heresy, I stopped at that church every Sunday during my recent console phase. But in reading that article, I accepted the reality of it. Until then, I was insulated from the poor BB experience, as I usually seek out a particular very cool manager at my local church, and the mini-Apple Store inside there has a staff that’s on the ball. Plus, the instant you realize that free copy of Skyrim isn’t coming, you have to go buy it now. But enough people tell me about their poor service experience that the evidence is overwhelming. And Best Buy just can’t complete with the virtually infinite selection and amazing customer service of Amazon. Plus, the fact that retired people brag to me about the $600 savings they got on Amazon for a new TV, added to the chorus of voices around me telling me that Best Buy, and big box retail along with it, had jumped the shark.
But a lot of retail is failing. Not only doesn’t Old Navy carry the right basic pants, but neither does Baby Gap in Spring. Granted, these megastores share corporate ownership, but I had a mirror image experience there too. Instead of novelty T-shirts, they have overpriced gaudy art print dresses. Nothing basic, nothing solid. The same is true of other clothing stores, and as I spent more time trying to shop that Sunday afternoon, I realized why I had migrated nearly all shopping to the Internet. And here it is. The real world doesn’t offer stores, in the literal sense of storing the things we need. Instead, they push the things they want to sell. They artificially create a commercial fiction of seasonality to condition you to think that you need to buy new things.
But I don’t need new things. I sometimes want basic clothes that match the weather. This would be the point at which Michael Pollan might suggest I buy local. There are true stores like Hangr 16 on 16th and Valencia, that sell weather-appropriate clothing. I think I’m moving my thinking more into that realm. It speaks to the dollar democracy that actually moves our culture forward.
But what is the fate that big retail deserves? Gary says it must die. And certainly, there is precedent. We as a culture decided that the tobacco industry was patently wrong, and did not deserve to exist. We effectively shunned them out of most advertising, bars, and polite society. But does the discommodation of tobacco make sense for brick and eminently mortal retail? I think it’s actually survival of the fittest. Commercial Darwinism annihilated Detroit, and I think it’s fair to simply allow the asteroid to hit big retail. Those that get how to create a welcoming customer experience, with products that make sense for the customer, with a backend that integrates well with their online presence, like the Apple Store, are perfectly welcome to survive and thrive. The rest of you, look up.
SF: Once there were many reasons to take a trip to the local retail location: monopoly on distribution, convenience, idle curiosity, impulse buying and so forth. More reasons meant more pieces of the population crossing the threshold with cash in hand. The interwebs is complicating matters significantly by undermining a number of the reasons a person drops in on a store (distribution, convenience, price advantage, etc.). I believe retail will always have SOME value, since the internet can’t quite replicate the interactive experience of holding a product in your hands, but things are going to change.
JM: Shawn, I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Haptics.