January 6, 2012

Drum: In Praise of Soulless Chain Bookstores

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones:

“Big cities have either (a) big neighborhood bookstores or (b) lots of little bookstores. That can be pretty nice, and I understand the attraction. But suburbia never had that. For us, Barnes & Noble has been great. If it dies, it’s not going to be because of nostalgia for small bookstores, it’s going to be because too many people prefer Amazon.com.”

Drum makes a solid point here, one that's often ignored. Big-box and chain stores provide something that smaller shops, whether they're selling books or hardware, simply cannot: selection. Unless they're in a niche business, smaller shops can't often touch the breadth of products found at big box stores. Suburbanites have come to enjoy the experience of seeing a galaxy of products under one roof. That's their comfort zone.

Another point that affects the big boxers as much as smaller retailers is that Amazon has altered consumer behavior by providing a smorgasbord of selection without a showroom. Consumers window-shop at local stores then beat feet home to order their products from Amazon, or even do their ordering by smartphone from right in the local store.

Many small shops close not because Wal-Mart or Home Depot come to town, but rather because everything they offer is available from Amazon (or other large online outlet).

Small retailers can compete against big box stores on customer service and customer relationship, but they have a hard time of it when the customer shops Amazon where there is no expectation of a relationship at all.