Keeping Brick and Mortar Stores in Business

February 22, 2011

More than just about anything else I’ve written on this blog, I should preface this post by saying that I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. I’m presenting ideas that are based almost exclusively on personal observation.

Last week, Borders announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Correspondingly, on Saturday our nearest Borders announced its going out of business sale. No one who spends any kind of time shopping for books and music is surprised by this. All I can say for them is that they send out some pretty decent coupons, but otherwise Cate and I avoid shopping there. Borders is a terrible store. Nearly every one I’ve ever been in has been horribly organized and their customer service has never been great. That’s not what did them in though.

Borders is the book equivalent of a big box store. They rely on the consumer believing that they have everything. Of course, they don’t have everything. Cate and I have often failed at using the awesome coupons they send out because, well, they just didn’t have anything we really wanted. Add to that that Border’s is often significantly more expensive than Amazon, and you’re forced to wonder if it’s even worth going to the store in the first place.

This is the same problem that a local music store (Ear X-tacy) ran into recently. They were something of an institution, but now they’re struggling to survive because everyone just downloads music or orders from the internet or whatever.

Ear X-tacy and Borders both want to be all things to all customers, but they can’t be. You can’t stock every book. You can’t stock every album. There are too many. What you have to be willing to do, if you want a presence in the physical marketplace, is to become boutique.

What does this mean? It means you acknowledge that you can’t stock everything. Instead, you appeal to the educated consumer. A local bookstore (Carmichael’s) has mastered this. Their fiction section, for instance, is excellent. Does Borders have more fiction titles? Of course, but Carmichael’s survives because they stock the right titles. They don’t, for example, stick Ralph Ellison next to some unfortunate African-American erotica just because both authors happen to be black. They don’t even bother with the erotica. This means that people like me will go there because they’ve already separated a lot of the wheat from the chaff. Discovering new writers is hard, especially when there is so much trash out there. If I want to do all that work myself, well, I can just go to Amazon.

The second part of knowing what to stock is realizing that while, yes you have to stock Justin Beiber if you’re a music store and Dan Brown if you’re a bookstore, you better find plenty of space for the Jenny Lewises and William Maxwells of the world.

I’ll end this with a story that illustrates my point: Cate and I tried hard to support Ear X-tacy. If we could buy something there we did, but then Robert Cray put out an album. And they didn’t have it. Derek Trucks put out a new album. And they didn’t have it. Finally, Jenny Lewis put out a new album. And they didn’t have that either. None of these are huge mainstream artists, but they are artists that you have to carry if you’re catering to music fans and not people who listen to top 40 radio on the way to work. We looked around and realized their selection wasn’t really any different from your local FYE. After the last incident, we stopped shopping there. It wasn’t worth the trip anymore. If they cared about my business, they’d stock music you can’t hear on the radio. Amazon has it cheaper anyway.

One Response to “Keeping Brick and Mortar Stores in Business”

  1. Rachel said

    While I agree w/ you in point..I need to point out another reason to deal w/ “brick and mortar” stores. This last week I forgot to send in an order form w/ my son for some school logo clothing. The school was placing the order w/ a mom and pop shop here in our home town. Instead of running across town on some very nasty roads on my lunch, I called downtown to said store and asked if i could run the order down the next morning. The clerk said it was not a problem and while i was there I also ordered a jacket for myself that i had not been able to find at any chain retailers, so while Amazon, itunes, and other such places do get a nice chunck of my business there is definately still a benefit to hometown business!

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