Saturday, January 19, 2013

Seemingly, A Browsing Pastime is No Longer in Store

Of all the potential causes for personal and/or societal consternation, learning that the Best Buy near Old Orchard will cease to exist after February 3rd would not seem to be of grave concern (though the store does sit on land formerly belonging to a cemetery).

Not only am I not in the market for any new electronics or appliances, and whatever music and movies I still acquire in physical form can easily be shopped for online, but this leaves just four Best Buys within a 15-minute drive from my home (assuming none of those are also slated for closure).

While it was nice having a Best Buy—likely the store at which I’ve most shopped over the years—within 3 minutes of home, and I hope the store’s employees can be redeployed to nearby locations, I can’t
work up much vexation over an overexpanded retail corporation being forced to downsize.

But the news—and yes, I realize Best Buy sells much more than movies and music—bothers me on the heels of reading that the British music chain HMV, with 230 stores and 92 years in business, is “going into administration,” meaning that it has essentially collapsed financially and is looking for a buyer. None of its stores have yet closed, and perhaps can be saved, but I enjoyed browsing HMV in London, where—like in America—Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore went bust years ago.

I also read that Barnes & Noble began closing selected stores—in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Chicago, Austin, Manhattan and Dallas—after a slow holiday 2012 sales season. And it seems that the spectre of B&N completely evaporating, like its old rival Borders, isn’t far-fetched.
So I ask you, where is a guy supposed to go to kill some time—and yes, buy some stuff? Especially, a guy like me who doesn’t drink coffee or (much) beer, isn’t supposed to eat ice cream or donuts and enjoys browsing, and buying, books, magazines, movies and music.
I used to love going to Tower Records, where they had a huge selection of CDs and DVDs, many great discounts, listening stations and pretty much every magazine ever published. But they went out of business in 2006.

Though in Chicago, the Virgin Megastore wasn’t nearly as convenient, it was cool to browse whenever I was on North Michigan Avenue.

In either Borders or Barnes & Noble, I could easily kill an hour perusing their vast selections, including great shelves of bargain books, of which I bought many. I think I got a book containing large color images of every Van Gogh painting for like $20. So it pains me whenever I see an empty, or converted, Borders store and I’ll really rue the day Barnes & Noble disappears.

And though Best Buy’s inventory of CDs (at its stores) is far short of Tower’s or Virgin’s, it is, or at least was, far more extensive than what you could find at Target or Walmart. Their prices on new release CDs and DVDs (and Blu-Rays) are invariably lower than anywhere else, and beyond often going to Best Buy to purchase a specific new album or film, it is also a store in which I can simply browse.

Not just for music and movies, but also to see what may be new in computers or printers or TVs or stereo equipment, etc., etc.

Certainly I recognize the changes in content distribution, and the resulting economic realities, that have caused bookstores, record stores and DVD retailers to dwindle and perhaps eventually disappear (though Best Buy is likely a separate case as a full-line retailer of computers, electronics and major appliances).

Although I will always value attractive and imaginative packaging as part of the popular music art form, and am old school enough to just like having a physical CD (with artwork, liner notes and lyrics), DVD or book, I realize that the quarterians—my term for those age 25 and under—deal primarily in digital music, movies and books, with or without paying anything.

So it doesn’t take a genius to deduce why huge stores with high rents and vast inventories of physical books, music, movies and magazines are going the way of the dinosaur. Even though I loved going to these stores, I probably proportionately never spent enough to keep them afloat, and of late have not only been buying less media, but doing it more so on Amazon or even iTunes.

But just because I understand why stores, and chains, like Tower Records, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Virgin Megastore, HMV and Best Buy may no longer be viable—either at all or in their current form—doesn’t mean I have to like it. (Though I do understand and respect the perspective of independent book and record store owners who were harmed, or even decimated, by these retail goliaths. But I can't deny I liked going to the big stores.)

And while sounding like a fossil clinging to a past that no longer exists, I believe there are cultural and commercial ramifications.

First, I think we are losing our shared sense of place and lessening human interaction in ways that aren’t good, but I won’t belabor this thought here.

But I also can’t tell you how many books and CDs I’ve bought because I noticed them in a store, and it’s highly unlikely I ever would have come across most of them online. Sure, they’re available on Amazon, but I wouldn’t have known to seek them out. I still like browsing physical merchandise, which goes back to my penchant for distinctive packaging.

While acknowledging that younger people haven’t been as indoctrinated into browsing for physical books, movies, music, etc.—and therefore don’t know what they may be missing—I wonder if HMV’s high profile stores in London (and ones like them in other big cities) could conceivably still exist, but primarily to promote digital purchases.

Of course, this would mandate a change in retail economics. Instead of stores and chains simply buying product from record companies, movie studios and publishers and then reselling them as their means of existing, the manufacturers/marketers would have to subsidize the existence of an HMV or Barnes & Noble so that shoppers could become aware of new & intriguing books, CDs, DVDs—even if they prefer to download a file rather than buy items in the store.

Given the cost of store rents and employees and the realities of Profit & Loss statements and other fiscal management factors, this idea seems somewhat impractical. Unless Apple (and perhaps similarly, Google and Microsoft) gets involved.

What if Apple leased space in each of its Apple Stores for publishers, etc., to showcase their physical media in order to drive digital downloads, which could be done right in the store.

And as this article notes, Amazon has already been considering opening bricks 'n mortar stores, in part to boost its sales through what Jeff Bezos calls “me-too product offering(s).”

Something like this could be a potentially smart solution. For though I like my physical books, CDs, DVDs and magazines, I’ve gone to electronic versions in some cases and realize that there are environmental benefits to greatly eliminating the need for packaging materials.

But I’m still convinced there are marketing and cultural awareness benefits to capturing our attention and interest via products and/or displays we encounter, including in cursory and passive ways.

And at the very least, the continued—if modified—existence of stores in which I can browse would serve to give me someplace to go.

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