Retail Is Hell: how shopping in stores has become hell on earth
Last weekend I had a fantastic experience: I went to a real physical store, filled with real people, real physical goods, with a solid intent to consume. When I was a teen, going to buy a record at a store was a treat. I could spend the full afternoon contemplating products I couldn’t afford, chat with vendors about the latest album releases, get advice on tech stuff I would never buy, and come home fulfilled and happy, and call my friends to report. 30 years later, I did not really have a choice: my daughter wanted something, was in Paris through Saturday mid-afternoon, and asked me nicely. She had lost or broken her digital camera, and it is apparently normal that fathers replace lost high tech toys without conditions. So I took my car, headed for the nearest mall, located the local cultural/hi-tech stuff reseller (a highly known brand in France) and for the first time in almost a year stepped into a good old large physical retail outlet. But I was happy, and even had thoughts of treating myself with a couple CD’s and DVD’s while I was there, if not a bigger toy. I even own a “premium and exclusive” loyalty card from this specific reseller from 10 years ago, with a special “VIP cashier” pass. What could go wrong? Little did I know I had entered what retrospectively I think must have been the first circle of hell. As soon as I entered, I checked for the CD section, hoping to discover some cool new band I didn’t know, some reedited nugget from the past, or be tempted by a cool cover, ready to have a “what’s cool these days” chat with the vendor. Big disappointment. First, 80% of the shelf space was dedicated to either mainstream novelties with a stock of at least 2000 new “hype artist that you’re hearing 20 times a day” albums, in different configurations (novelties, promos, new this week, vendor selection, bundle with old albums), or racks and racks of uncategorized, unsorted CD’s in “buy 2 get 2 free” promotional bins. While the remaining 20 percent of shelves were displaying CDs categorized in (almost) alphabetical order, it quickly became clear that I wouldn’t actually want to browse, as the offering was awkward and poor to say the least. In the Independent rock section (roughly 2 meters wide), A to C section, there were about 20 artists with the honor of having a dedicated and named subsection (with most of the these having a single CD in the section, if any), and aside from that, 50 randomly piled CD’s from A. I’m pretty sure there are more than 20 artists playing Independent rock, and quite certain some of them issued more than one album in their lifetime. Said otherwise, the value prop of the store (a “cultural” store) was to either buy THE mainstream album of the moment, of get lucky browsing though a few mislabeled shelves carrying about 0.2% of the existing catalog. As I am stubborn I found a vendor (the lone one for the entire CD section), cornered him (they tend to try and escape) and asked him if they had albums from “Killing Joke”. He replied to me that he didn’t know but thought I should look at K’s shelves in indie rock, or metal, or perhaps Pop/rock, otherwise maybe in International variety. Then he said “Oops, sorry, I need to go” and I watched him disappear as quickly as he first appeared. I left. I spare you the part about the DVD section, obviously managed by the same logic, except there were officially no vendors (apart from a sign saying: “if you need help, ask at the CD section”). I’ll keep using Amazon or Gobuz, no big deal, I get it, times are tough, very little margin for CD’s, hard to keep the long tail in stores, focus on main category leaders and promos. My only point would be that if you cannot keep a promise as a retailer, and have to degrade your inventory and experience that much, why keep trying to simulate? Just say: “we only carry 20 references, please go to our online store if you are looking for something else”. That would have saved me some time. Although frustrated, I continued my trip and went for the big one: the digital camera section. And there it was worse, way worse: around 100 models, displayed on shelves but attached to cables that made it impossible to manipulate them. Not much better than watching a picture of the camera on a site. I tried to pull one, thinking there was a clever system like an elastic cable‚ and then spend 2 minutes explaining security that ok, I got it, it was not permitted to touch or try to manipulate a camera without a vendor. Labels were really helpful, too: Panasonic XCFR-67g / 7r , 399€, 16Mpx, Auto, Man., 4 stars (from whom?) vs. Sony RDF5 – Blck/NoR., 395€, 16Mpx, Auto, Man, 4 stars. The convenient thing was that they were sorted by price range (cheapest to most expensive) and stars (as there was a strong correlation between price and stars). There was also a bin with little leaflets called “Choosing your digital camera”, which seemed to be a printed collection of the shelves labels, with a picture of the cameras, and some useful advice like “If you are going to take a lot of pictures, think of buying extra memory sticks”. Amusingly, most of the cameras referenced in the little book were from the previous year, and not matching the ones on sale. I needed advice. There was indeed a vendor. He was easy to find this time: he was at the end of the 50 people queue. This vendor had a specific job: advising (“yes, this one is better it’s more expensive”), selling (“ok, you’ll take this one then?”), then recording the transaction on a 1985 PC AT using a software designed apparently in 1976 (“Ah, we do not have it in stock here, are you sure you do not want the other one?”), which would deliver a voucher that allowed you to pay at the cashier, then once you’ve paid allow you to go to another place in the store, where you could queue again to collect your goods in no more than 30 minutes. It was ten past ten when I entered the store, it was now 11:50. I love my daughter very much but I left my voucher (I hadn’t paid yet) when the “special VIP cashier” that was crowded with non VIP loyalty holders told me she couldn’t let me pass as otherwise all the other customers would have a riot and that “you know, we cannot afford to let VIP cards go first, there are already not enough cashiers”. Back to my car, an hour and 50 minutes after entering the store, I had bought zip and was a bit upset. I went home, and told my daughter to pick a camera on Amazon. She read a few blogs and reviews on cameras, we ‘one click bought’ (for 10€ less than in the store) and asked for the camera to be delivered on Monday at her apartment in St Etienne. Took 20mn tops. She received it Monday at noon. I don’t get it, really. When will retailers (especially large ones) understand that the era of “offline vs. online” is over? When will they realize that to counter an Amazon app that allows users to scan products in their store, buy them and have them delivered the next day, instead of blocking wifi and covering over store tags with white tags (yes they did), all they have to do is do it themselves? Scenario: I go to the same store in 3 years. With my smartphone and the app the store sent me by mail rather than an annoying proposal from third party for a rebate on a spa or a cheap ticket for wherever if I buy it now. The store is cool. There is only one item of every product, except some best sellers that they can have by the tens if needed. Thus freeing space, and making browsing thru thousands of references easy and fast. Vendors are available, because all they have to do is advise customers, and guide them. They are experts in some area, and you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, just scan their nametag and confirm. They have a tablet, where they can consult catalogs, browse the web for information, check inventory and transact with a Square-like thingy. When I decide I’ll buy that CD (or DVD, or Book, or camera) I can simply scan the code myself, choose my preferred delivery method (take it now, have it delivered, download it now, or a combination of both). I can check my loyalty points, give stars to my vendor, signal a missing item, or Skype my wife to make sure it is the book she wanted. Maybe I can even offer her the book that will download on her reader? Maybe I can ask the camera to be picked in St Etienne by my daughter if she has the password I sent her? If I want it now, then I can go when the product is ready (which is indicated on my app) to the locker room, go to locker 35, enter my password and get my stuff with no lining up. Wasn’t that simple, fast and pleasant? How hard is it? The technologies for that short scenario are all available, mature, and cheap. I’m pretty sure the vendors wouldn’t mind going back to helping customers rather than having to run because explaining to consumers that you cannot help them as you also have to do 10 other tasks including refurbishing shelves isn’t a fantastic job. Maybe that’s a better way to compete with Amazon than trying to separate the digital and real world? Maybe they could use the best of technologies and mix it in the best of what stores were? The only flaw in my scenario is that I do not get to see my daughter’s smile when she gets her camera. But maybe I can know when she’s getting it, get an alert and Skype her? I don’t know, I’m just a digital guy, who doesn’t have 50 years experience in retail, just another annoying consumer, preferring Amazon fulfillment to my once preferred retail brand. But I’d sure love to spend quality time with my daughter, physically, shopping for a camera. I promise I’ll do it as soon as retail will stop being hell on earth and become entertaining, inspiring and useful again.