Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Thursday, October 15, 2009

She Sells Seashells (On Her Website, Wholesale)

Recently I’ve been kvetching a lot about the book biz, specifically about working for one of the big brick & mortar chains. And I’ve had good reason to grouse, though it’s also true that there are many day jobs that suck way worse than mine. This is still the best job I’ve ever had in terms of work environment. I like my co-workers very much, my G.M. has bent over backward many times to give me the schedule and vacation days I want, and this is nothing to sneeze at. Even with all of its flaws, I would keep this job for 10 more years if I could. And because of this, I do everything they ask me to do, including offering extra items to people at the cash register and addressing them by name. Who knows, maybe it will work.

But I’m not just a sales clerk, I’m also a shopper. So when I wonder what’s going to happen to big-chain brick & mortar retail businesses, I think about what I prefer in my own shopping experience. And most of the time, what I prefer to do is go online. Here are the reasons.

When I first started shopping online, it was because I couldn’t find something I wanted locally: seashells. Yes my friends, I found a website where she sells seashells. (In case you’re interested, it was Sanibel Industries, but there are many others.) After that point, I no longer thought about shopping in stores if I could get something online, and this included clothing, rugs, baking supplies, garden supplies, and books & music.

So selection was the first reason, but it wasn’t alone. Price and convenience were also factors. There I sat, in my jammies, sipping coffee and listening to the birdies sing outside, and I could use my search engine to find the best whatsis for the most reasonable price. You have to be cautious about where you’re willing to enter your credit card number, but I’ve had that problem in brick & mortar places too. Credit card companies are much more alert to fraud attacks than they used to be, and I always review my statements.

So the possibility of fraud doesn’t scare me away from the internet. It’s a great source of information too, and I’ll probably be enrolling in some online college courses this year, so I wonder how necessary it’s going to be in the future to set foot on a campus. I can get news online from a variety of sources, no more newspaper is necessary. I can research hikes I want to take, places I want to visit, movies I’m thinking of seeing. I can find the classical music that brick & mortar stores haven’t been willing to stock for years. I can find out-of-print books and DVDs. So I have to ask myself, if I didn’t work for this big book chain, would I even set foot in any of its stores?

And the answer is no.

The thing is, there are still stores I’m willing to visit in person. Like the grocery store. And it’s nice to eat out from time to time. I love antique malls too. I like Costco and Target, though I don’t visit either of them as much as they would probably like me to. I go to Home Depot and Lowe’s, though my favorite places to go for gardening supplies are family-owned nurseries. I can buy shoes online, but my husband has weird-sized feet and needs to try shoes on. An experienced clerk can really make a difference in those situations.

Which brings up a key concept – the small business with a devoted clientele. Some of these do very well, despite a bad economy. They tend to be small restaurants, bakeries, plant nurseries, antique shops, curiosity shops, etc. I still like to visit those. Most small book stores only do well if they are hybrids that combine books with other products and services, in a fashion that doesn’t enable too many freebee readers and shoplifters.

But they don’t make huge amounts of money. And they don’t spend huge amounts either. Old fashioned business principles tend to apply to these stores much more than they do to big chains, who mask a lack of profitability with easy credit and who waste money so shamefully, it’s a wonder they don’t fail a lot faster than they usually do.

I don’t know that Big Business will ever be totally finished. But the next ten years or so may be the era of Medium Business, brick & mortar stores that are big enough to obtain the loans and credit they need and the name recognition that will attract the customers, but small enough to avoid the waste and the overpaid executives whose sole purpose in life is to think up Kafka-esque bullshit.

But what will happen online is hard to say. Hundreds of millions of people (me among them) will be offering things for sale and even things for free online. As people become more computer- and web-savvy, they’ll have more options, as both buyers and sellers. Not to mention entertainment consumers. Not to mention entertainment producers! We’ll see more change in the next ten years than we saw in the previous ten, and that’s a heck of a lot of change.

Will book stores still be around? That depends on whether one or both of the two biggies fail. I’m expecting to see a transition period, but I’m not sure how long it will last and whether or not there will be a huge glut of remaindered hard-copy books for sale. Or whether people will embrace the different e-readers so thoroughly, a lot of books will get pulped or buried in landfills.

Even libraries may convert to electronic systems, though how much remains to be seen. Librarians would use their time assisting research rather than shelving and alphabetizing.

What would happen to book store clerks, then? We may end up doing the same thing as the librarians, but with a different pay system. I wouldn’t mind that one bit. I’m good at research, and it would be a great way to develop a friendly customer service environment. You wouldn’t even have to do it at a bookstore, you could work with a headset, a telephone, and a computer at home.

Oops. We’re doomed!

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