Join 3,430 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The death of bricks-and-mortar retail
January 31, 2013 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Marc Andreessen predicts the end of traditional retail.
Retail chains are a fundamentally implausible economic structure if there’s a viable alternative. You combine the fixed cost of real estate with inventory, and it puts every retailer in a highly leveraged position. Few can survive a decline of 20 to 30 percent in revenues. It just doesn’t make any sense for all this stuff to sit on shelves. There is fundamentally a better model.
posted by beagle (113 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I dunno, I know a significant number of people that would still rather do their shopping in person. Actually, we just had a thread on clothes shopping here not too far back and several people just couldn't wrap their heads around ordering clothes and shoes online, just as an example.

Now, I think stores are going to have to find some kind of niche to survive, but people just aren't ready to buy everything online yet.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:31 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


“Retail chains are a fundamentally implausible economic structure if there’s a viable alternative,”

I think that this is missing the fact that for a number of people there is not a viable alternative. There are plenty of people who can't afford computers or internet access and if nothing else I prefer to try on clothes before I buy them. For me, internet clothes shopping is not a viable alternative. I think his point might hold for certain luxury brands and items but I don't think it's likely that we're just going to stop having stores in the way he breathlessly describes.

Also:
And what about the excitement around massive new retail brands like H&M and Zara who have capitalized on modern supply chains, fast-churning sales and low costs to create some of the biggest entrepreneur success stories in traditional retail? Andreessen views their success as “more transitionary than permanent.”
Why? This might be true but I'd be more inclined to believe him if he gave a reason beyond "Software eats retail".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:32 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is fundamentally a better model.

It surely can't be the model where the consumer buys clothing without first trying them on, having said clothing shipped to their home, then having the clothing shipped back for a refund or exchange if they don't fit, then starting the process all over again, wasting potentially weeks just for a friggin pair of jeans.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:32 AM on January 31, 2013 [24 favorites]


They don't have much hope of competing against people like Amazon who are not required to be profitable. Perhaps that's the goal: push local retail out with Amazon's dumping tactics, then raise prices.
posted by grubby at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not to mention the vast number of people who don't have all of computer, credit card, and easy/cheap shipping.
posted by Lemurrhea at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2013


I think the reason that a lot of bookstores have gone out of business is because Amazon is a viable alternative for buying books, especially with the advent of e-readers. That's just not true for clothes and shoes.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


"My core theory is that the best software companies will win at retail..."

My core theory is that Marc Andreessen has spent his life shopping in malls where the stores are run by apathetic teenagers and has never actually encountered a useful salesperson in the wild, and therefore doesn't actually understand why anyone would prefer a human being to walk them through a purchase rather than watch a video of a man waving a shoe around.

Also there's the whole "poor people and their lack of internet connectivity and inability to pay online" problem but we can sweep that under the rug for now because FUTURE
posted by griphus at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


When he says "retail" does he mean "everyone except Walmart?"
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


And it really depends where you are located. Even ordering from Amazon is a pain in the ass for my parents and their neighbors.

What I'm saying is that it looks like certain parts of the country will be stuck with Walmart and Target as the only options before retail is dead.

(so I guess it depends on how you define 'traditional retail')
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


FTA:
This is a pretty bold prediction, given that Zappos was the last ecommerce company we saw exit for $1 billion, and Y-Charts says that US ecommerce sales are only about 5 percent of all retail sales.
Umm. If anything, I'm sort of now convinced that ecommerce is just a replacement for catalog shopping, and Amazon is simply the Sears Catalog 2.0.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of gold in them thar hills... but it's not going to shutter all the storefronts.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [15 favorites]


Marc Andreessen predicts nothing that wasn't already predicted 5 years ago, with the exception that he seems to be suggesting that all existing retailers with brick and mortar presence will literally go out of business.

Which doesn't hold water. They'll adapt their models to ecommerce and brick and mortar stores will still exist in some fashion.
posted by Room 101 at 9:35 AM on January 31, 2013


Although, surely a better model for clothes shopping is a body scanner that measures you accurately so that an online company can custom build clothes for you. Combine the scanner with a visualizer that allows you to adjust the fit ("looser", "slimmer") and surely that would be a better model than the current retail model where the clothes are pre-made and you have to find the one that fits you least badly.
posted by grubby at 9:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [21 favorites]


I'm not surprised that a man is forecasting the death of retail. eCommerce works fine for men's clothes; many women's items have to be tried on before you buy, which really does not work well online.
posted by sid at 9:36 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


grubby, I don't think so. The whole point (for me) of trying clothes on is to see how they feel. I know what size I am, and have a good idea of how things will fit my body. But texture is a huge thing for me, and will often make my decision for me on whether to buy.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Rich male technocrat wonders aloud why anyone would want to buy clothes sight unseen (worn) without internet, credit -- or possibly an address.

Also, on the other end of the equation, see "Apple Store".
posted by smidgen at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


Although, surely a better model for clothes shopping is a body scanner that measures you accurately so that an online company can custom build clothes for you. Combine the scanner with a visualizer that allows you to adjust the fit ("looser", "slimmer") and surely that would be a better model than the current retail model where the clothes are pre-made and you have to find the one that fits you least badly.

Maybe, in the sense that a replicator would be a better model than a tea kettle; the replicator seems only moderately less plausible.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2013


Sure, in a world with infinite energy and zero aversion to massively concentrated wealth, it's "cheaper" to go with an outfit like Amazon.

I'll set aside for the moment the interpersonal deficits of e-commerce, and ignore the problems with business models that ignore externalities. I'd submit that, at a more fundamental level, Andreesen's model is not an emerging, viable alternative; it's an already shark-jumped model of the dying, globalized, fossil-fuel-driven political economy. The actually new movements are directed at relocalizing businesses, with the goal of reversing the Wal-Mart-ization of the economy and creating resilience in the face of looming environmental changes.

Would it make sense for local and regional businesses to exploit information technologies? Probably yes. But that will be a very different beast than Amazon or Zappos.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:41 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


roomthreeseventeen: have you ever worn custom tailored clothes? To my mind "custom" is a significant advantage over pret a porter, and they almost always feel great. For the fabrics the store could send you a bunch of swatches.
posted by grubby at 9:41 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Forget clothing. I don't even like to buy tools and parts without seeing and handling them myself. They aren't going to tell you "feels like crap" or "covered in burrs" in the description.

It just doesn’t make any sense for all this stuff to sit on shelves. There is fundamentally a better model.

There will come a day when Just In Time is seen as the non-redundant (as in "redundant systems") idiocy it is. Probably when an EMP/solar flare takes out vast sections of our comm and shipping network and thousands starve.
posted by DU at 9:41 AM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Noted tech investor says "tech the best!"
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:42 AM on January 31, 2013 [16 favorites]


I believe that online retailers need real estate, too. Warehouses, offices and things like that still need to exist in places.
posted by Edgewise at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think there's a fundamental difference between an item that people want to look at first before they buy, because there's a lot of variation in those things, and items where one is much like another. Apples vs books, or shoes vs jars of pickles, for example.

The variable goods will always need retail. I don't want to buy fruit on-line, I want to select it. On the other hand, I'm happy to mail-order a new set of tires for my car, if that's cheaper or more convenient.

The challenge for retailers is that line between what we need to examine or not is different for everyone. The retailers who survive will need to negotiate that need for human experience. I don't think a demo store with on-line fulfillment would be good enough for a pair of jeans, for example, but that seems to work pretty well for cell phones.
posted by bonehead at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


People who don't care about shopping shouldn't write articles about the death of shopping.
posted by spicynuts at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not surprised that a man is forecasting the death of retail. eCommerce works fine for men's clothes; many women's items have to be tried on before you buy, which really does not work well online.

Unsurprisingly, the person I know who declared "buying pants on the internet has changed my life" was a man.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:44 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


HEY GUISE LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT TECHNOLIBERTARIANISM
posted by boo_radley at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2013 [12 favorites]


I can't even buy the same model of Levi's without trying them on first. No quality control.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:46 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


eCommerce works fine for men's clothes...

I can assure you, it doesn't. I'm one of those guys who is perpetually in-between sizes on just about everything. I have to root-through the stacks of jeans and pants to find the one that is either cut a bit larger or smaller than the size indicated to get something to fit. I'd never in a bajillion years put myself through the ordeal of ordering pants online.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Unsurprisingly, the person I know who declared "buying pants on the internet has changed my life" was a man.

Because he had an odd waist measurement (e.g. 33 or 35). They don't seem to be stocked at retail, Levi's at least.
posted by achrise at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


“My core theory is that the best software companies will win at retail, so it’ll become increasingly important for these companies to have the best software programmers in the world."

Well, this is true in the sense that Wal*Mart (by far the largest traditional retailer, I think) spends millions on IT operations every year, which helps them keep costs and overhead as low as possible.
Certainly non-niche companies with even slightly inefficient supply chains are going to get 'eaten'.
posted by madajb at 9:48 AM on January 31, 2013


My prediction: At the end of the decade, there will still be retail stores, and despite having been proven completely wrong, people will still be listening to whatever crap Andreessen is saying about eCommerce and unsustainable models because he worked on Mosaic.

This unaccountability in tech journalism is insane. It's like how political pundits keep getting invited back to the Sunday talk shows despite their predictions turning out wildly wrong over and over again.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:51 AM on January 31, 2013 [11 favorites]


Also, either there aren't a lot of pictures of Marc Andreessen out there, or my cursory Google Image Search suggests he's been rocking the same light blue button-down shirt +/- suit jacket, +/- sweatervest since people have started taking photos of him. Which, I mean, whatever, enjoy your clothes dude, but I don't think his experiences extrapolate well.
posted by griphus at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have just lived the downside of this. There is literally one retail store that sells maternity clothes in a 50 mile radius of me. I've ordered stuff online and had to send back 90% of it because the cut was weird, the fabric felt odd, there was some design element that drove me nuts (belt in the wrong place, etc) or some other issue that would have been avoided entirely if I'd been able to evaluate the item in a store before buying. I'm not about to buy entirely online for clothing or shoes.

The other stores he mentions as surviving the meatspace extinction (Zara, H&M) are terrible, totally unpredictable in terms of quality and usually selling items of very cheaply made fabrics for inflated prices.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2013


"Amazon is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers"
posted by bonefish at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I doubt well ever see the end of brick and mortars, it‘s too convieniant to get what you need 10 minutes from home. However, I do think it is likely we will see and are already seeing a shift in how the need to opperate. A lot of brick and mortar stores just don't understand how to compete with online vendors.

I am heavily involved in fish keeping. I prefer to buy locally because I want the convience of getting things close by and supporting local stores helps with that. But there are some places that are easily 4 times the cost of what I pay online. And a lot of local places are reducing the variety of products. If that's gonna be the case, there isn't much reason to buy locally. Plus a lot dont keep up with changes in fads and technology, forcing the dedicated, money spending hobbyist online. Conversely, there is one local store that's been selling at prices similar to online. They keep up with current trends and technology. Even if they dont carry something, you better bet they know about it and can get it in quickly. They are probably operating at razor thin margins, but everyone in the community loves them and has stolen business from other storesas well as online.

Another data point. A company I was working at until recently was taking a nose dive because it couldn't compete with brick and mirrors even though it had dominated the market for 10 years online. The problem they are facing is they just can't compete with the brand recognition of physical retailers. So yeah, its changing for everyone.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2013


In the US, retail stores benefitted from public infrastructure like roads and zoning and fire protection.

Until there is a massive (and massively expensive) push to extend broadband to rural America, I don't see e-commerce replacing bricks and mortar.

Less than 75% of US homes have Internet access. In Mississippi, it's 56%. In Alabama, 62%.

That's a lot of potential customers that can't buy stuff online.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a fundamentally better model if you want your neighborhoods to be desolate crime-ridden wastelands full of shuttered shops. The only alternative seems to be filling every storefront with bars, which means the streets are lined with pissing and puking young people.
posted by Fnarf at 10:02 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bulgaroktonos: "Although, surely a better model for clothes shopping is a body scanner that measures you accurately so that an online company can custom build clothes for you. Combine the scanner with a visualizer that allows you to adjust the fit ("looser", "slimmer") and surely that would be a better model than the current retail model where the clothes are pre-made and you have to find the one that fits you least badly.

Maybe, in the sense that a replicator would be a better model than a tea kettle; the replicator seems only moderately less plausible.
"

There are already companies that do this, don't know how well they work but it's not science fiction.
posted by octothorpe at 10:03 AM on January 31, 2013


The actually new movements are directed at relocalizing businesses, with the goal of reversing the Wal-Mart-ization of the economy and creating resilience in the face of looming environmental changes.

Going local is actively wasteful. Centralised, just in time delivery systems are much more environmentally friendly than having nice little local shops with their overhead and waste. If you want to make a difference, shop online for your groceries and stop using local supermarkets with their huge energy costs.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:03 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


has never actually encountered a useful salesperson in the wild, and therefore doesn't actually understand why anyone would prefer a human being to walk them through a purchase

what? Are you kidding? Apathetic teenagers are great. I'll happily skip whatever it means to be "walked through a purchase" if it means I don't have to deal with the schmoozing and upselling and attempts to get me to sign up for the mailing list and whatnot. All I want to do is buy a goddamn shirt, leave me alone.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:05 AM on January 31, 2013 [11 favorites]


YADOBAMRP*









Yet Another Death Of Bricks And Mortar Retail Post
posted by Doohickie at 10:05 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Personally I buy most of my clothes online (well actually my wife does) because of fitting issues. I get pretty tired of going into Macy's or The Gap and not finding a single pair of jeans that fit when I can go online and they have all possible sizes in stock. I'm not really all that weird a size but I can never seem to buy pants and a brick and mortar store.
posted by octothorpe at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2013


It's a fundamentally better model if you want your neighborhoods to be desolate crime-ridden wastelands full of shuttered shops.

So everyone who works retail (itself not that awesome a job) will either be totally jobless and destitute or work in one of Amazon's nightmarish fulfillment warehouses with no job security or benefits. Who precisely is going to do all the shopping? Obviously, this is a shoe event horizon situation, only more of a "job event horizon" situation.

And I say this as someone who actually does buy almost everything online, because as a small plus size queer butch person I can't find anything on the actual rack ever except the polyester-modal-spandex garbage they stock at Target and the frilly polyester at Lane Bryant. I would love to be able to go shopping in actual stores, but since the thrift store economy was ravaged by vintage/eBay, there's just not a lot out there.
posted by Frowner at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is this article from 1998? This sounds exactly like what people were predicting during the dotcom boom of that era.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:07 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't have to deal with the schmoozing and upselling and attempts to get me to sign up for the mailing list...

These are the not the hallmarks of a useful salesperson. I've ran a number of retail stores -- including selling shirts! -- and all of that stuff is what you get in shitty corporate chains staffed by people who do not care about the store, or the merchandise, or the customers. Shop at a place that actually wants you to come back on a personal level and they'll either help you out without the annoying stuff, or leave you alone to make your purchases.
posted by griphus at 10:07 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, in a world with infinite energy and zero aversion to massively concentrated wealth, it's "cheaper" to go with an outfit like Amazon... It's a fundamentally better model if you want your neighborhoods to be desolate crime-ridden wastelands full of shuttered shops.

Unfortunately none of those concerns factor into how capitalism works and have never stopped anyone before.
posted by the jam at 10:08 AM on January 31, 2013


Although, surely a better model for clothes shopping is a body scanner that measures you accurately so that an online company can custom build clothes for you. Combine the scanner with a visualizer that allows you to adjust the fit ("looser", "slimmer") and surely that would be a better model than the current retail model where the clothes are pre-made and you have to find the one that fits you least badly.

Maybe, in the sense that a replicator would be a better model than a tea kettle; the replicator seems only moderately less plausible.
Something like this actually exists though rather than making the clothes for you, it gives you a printout of what clothing sizes would fit you best at which stores (I am kind of waiting with bated breath for it to come to a location that wouldn't require some ridiculous logistics for me to get to)
posted by matcha action at 10:11 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also there's the whole "poor people and their lack of internet connectivity and inability to pay online" problem.

I expect this problem will result in another "poor-tax" business opportunity. How hard would it be for a person or business -- say the local check cashing place -- with Internet access and a shipping address to start offering Internet shopping? With a "shopping assistant" for the less computer literate. You tell them what you want, they find it for you on amazon, you hand over cash (plus a "fee"), they order it using their account with their credit card, you get a claim check and a phone call when your order comes in.
posted by fings at 10:12 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


the end of traditional retail

Except you know that people like "going shopping", also, trying on clothes. Also, colours never, ever being the same online.
posted by windykites at 10:12 AM on January 31, 2013


Tech articles like this have a certain tone-deafness about them that I associate with the five years I spent in a tiny town with no broadband infrastructure. I'd tell people that I couldn't get DSL or cable internet where I lived - not that I chose to live without it, but that I literally could not get broadband internet where I lived, and they'd sort of glaze over and look at me funny. And then I'd have the same conversation with them a couple of weeks later.

Some people can't comprehend that real human beings like you and me really do live in places where there are no 24 hour restaurants, and the closest grocery store is 30 minutes away.
posted by usonian at 10:12 AM on January 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, this online thing, do I just shove the cash through the USB port or is there some sort of flatbed scanned-currency exchange thing that is needed?
posted by stltony at 10:15 AM on January 31, 2013


A recent question of mine on the green left me believing that this (relying solely on e-commerce) is my present and future, whether I like it or not, as far as pants are concerned. For all the advantages of e-commerce... I just want to try things on!

An idea I had which would combine the best of both worlds for clothing/shoe shopping would be a store that stocked all sizes and colors of what they sold, but only a couple samples of each. You could try on what you wanted, but instead of going home with it, the store could order it for you, and you could go pick it up in a couple days. Stores may not have room for a large number of every size of everything they sell in petite, regular, and tall, but surely they could stock 1-2 of each?

I don't know enough about the retail landscape to know the viability of this, but wandering around Manhattan, asking myself if anyone-- anyone-- will just let me try on a pair of pants is not really ideal, and the e-commerce thing is a huge pain if you work during the day and live in an apartment without a doorman.
posted by matcha action at 10:17 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Retail chains are a fundamentally implausible economic structure if there’s a viable alternative.

This is absolutely correct. But it's a conditional statement, and the author seems to forget two things.

First, there is no such thing as "The Market." There are "markets". The market for cars is fundamentally unlike the market for legal services, and both are fundamentally unlike the market for breakfast cereal. So the way that we buy each of these things need not necessarily have anything to do with the way we buy the others. So the fact that traditional bookstores do seem more-or-less doomed as a major component of our brick-and-mortar retail mix does not necessarily mean that the same is true of supermarkets, car dealerships, or clothing retailers, the purchase of all of which is an inherently physical process not easily replicated online.

Second, Andreessen's sentiment could really only come from someone who lives in a major urban area, probably on the East or West Coast. The population density of San Francisco, where I believe Andreessen lives, is over 17k people/sq. mi. Just-in-time delivery works pretty well in places like that. But the average population density of the US is only 88 people/sq. mi. I mean, really, most of the country has less than 250 people/sq. mi.

So yes, maybe traditional retail for certain types of goods and services in major urban areas isn't long for this world. But for those of us that don't live in San Francisco, New York, Chicago,m or DC, or who are interested in buying a car, period, it'll be around for the foreseeable future.
posted by valkyryn at 10:19 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mars saxman, I hear you. Whenever I have to deal wiyh a salesperson trying to help me, I want to say "you're s lot more likely to make your comission if you leave me the hell alone", because "if I need your help, I will ask for it" abd "you will probably not do a very good job anyways". Of course I'm broke so it hasn't been an issue lately.
posted by windykites at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2013


Also I think bookstores will stay around because buying online is only useful, to me anyways, when I already know what I want. Browsing the bookstore and finding something unexpected is one of life's great pleasures.
posted by windykites at 10:24 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


"My core theory is that the best software companies will win at retail..."

Because pets can't drive.
posted by octobersurprise at 10:27 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Everything he says could have been said 10 years ago and seemed just as plausible. Why then, hasn't it happened yet? Most likely because there are many products that you have physically experience to know if you want to purchase. Its funny how Andreesen sees the physical presence and inventory as dead weight when these are in fact the competitive advantage over online buying in many circumstances. Furthermore, why doesn't he see the shipping cost (both ways) for returned merchandise as a nail in the coffin for online retail that physical stores avoid.

Yawn. I can totally get behind the idea that more goods will be purchased online, but it is pure hyperbole to sale that retails will die out.
posted by dgran at 10:37 AM on January 31, 2013


Until we have some sort of Star Trek replicator-style instant-delivery online shopping, I can guarantee we'll still be here, happy to help our customers who desperately need ink or toner. Or paper. Or want to sit in a bunch of chairs to find the perfect fit. Or want to have their office supplies delivered, carried in, and stocked on their shelves, instead of drop-shipped to their door.

Also, in our community at least, there are a lot of people (and that number appears to be growing) who have seen what happens when the Walmarts of the world come to town and drive local business out. It reduces quality employment, it reduces consumer choice, and it takes money out of the community. When the local bookstore needs office supplies, tools, light bulbs, etc., they buy them from the other local businesses. It all goes around. But when businesses and consumers buy from Walmart or Amazon, they don't reciprocate. And as people are waking up to this, we're seeing more people here that are committed to shopping locally. Sure, price vs. price, it might appear to cost more locally than from Amazon, but people are starting to realize that those "savings" have a very real price tag attached to them when all the money flows out of a community, and doesn't flow back in.
posted by xedrik at 10:39 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


This sounds exactly like what people were predicting during the dotcom boom of that era.
Not only that, but it's the same person saying it.
posted by smidgen at 10:41 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Without getting too specific, a long time ago I worked for a business that helped people like Andreessen with their personal media. In practice, this meant periodically an assistant of his would bring by shopping bags full of thousands of dollars worth of opera and classical music CDs -- super-high-end eight-disc European imports, big boxed sets and retrospectives, all still in their shrinkwrap. They never got around to actually picking up those bags once we'd digitized things, but of course they weren't ours so we couldn't just donate or sell them. So there they sat, bag after bag, a couple together worth significantly more than my car at that time. The world from which he speaks is a very different world than ours; I don't imagine he's had a conventional retail experience in many years that wasn't by choice.
posted by the brave tetra-pak at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


What baffles me is the people I know who work in brick and mortar retail who nonetheless shop online. Where's the solidarity?
posted by larrybob at 10:44 AM on January 31, 2013


Pity he wasn't asked about the massive wave of unemployment the collapse of retail would bring. I would suppose he'd get all hand-wavey and invoke the ever-magical "re-training" or somesuch.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:45 AM on January 31, 2013


Also I think bookstores will stay around because buying online is only useful, to me anyways, when I already know what I want. Browsing the bookstore and finding something unexpected is one of life's great pleasures.

What country are you writing from? In the US the bookstore is already essentially dead. Hell, just a few years ago this conversation was about how the evil empire Borders was driving out all the cool little non-chain bookstores. Now people talk nostalgically about the good old days of going to their local Borders store. Meanwhile Barnes and Noble is beginning to wind up their bricks and mortar operations. Sure, a few little specialty bookstores will survive (especially for glossy coffeetable books) but the bookstore as a primary location for purchasing regular trade books--that's already dead. And the notion that knowlegeable salespeople will be the decisive edge for bricks and mortar stores made more sense for bookshops (where it didn't actually make much sense in any case) than it does for most other stores.

The one thing brick and mortar stores realky have going for them is that people like shopping as a social experience--they like that whole "hey, let's go hit the malls!" thing. But the problem with that model is that it's not a crucial competitive advantage for any one particular kind of store. That is, people like the experience of visiting "shops"--but that won't stop them driving the actual specific stores out of business by their choices as to where they make purchases.

I already buy more clothes online that in bricks and mortar stores (I'm very tall, so the vastly greater range of things available in my size online outweighs the advantage of trying things on in person at stores--and online retailers are getting better and better at giving you the info you need to make reliable purchases online; as well as making the annoyance of making a bad purchase minimal). Predictions in this sort of area are a mug's game, of course, but I certainly don't think the arguments being made in this thread are all that convincing. If I owned or worked in a brick-and-mortar store I'd certainly see reason to be nervous.
posted by yoink at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not to mention the vast number of people who don't have all of computer, credit card, and easy/cheap shipping.

Vast, yes; more expensive to sell to than customers who have computers and credit cards, probably.

The problem for bricks and mortar stores is that on-line retail skims off the most profitable customers, and at the same time offers a superior selection of in-stock merchandise. Retail has tight margins, so even if say 5% of your customers leave for a competitor, if they're your moneymakers, that can kill you. See also: the death of nearly every independent bookstore in the US.
posted by zippy at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2013


“My core theory is that the best software companies will win at retail, so it’ll become increasingly important for these companies to have the best software programmers in the world."

And every carpenter sees the nail as a solution to every problem.
posted by mygoditsbob at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


I expect this problem will result in another "poor-tax" business opportunity. How hard would it be for a person or business -- say the local check cashing place -- with Internet access and a shipping address to start offering Internet shopping?

I believe this place already exists and is called the public library. Not particularly more inconvenient than the check cashing place (though admittedly there are about 8 check cashing places between me and the two equidistant public libraries). If you live somewhere with 7-11, Amazon will ship to 7-11. I'm not sure the problem of receiving packages is any worse for people who can't afford Internet access than it is for people who can, but don't have a car.
posted by hoyland at 11:06 AM on January 31, 2013


Andreesen is an off-the-rack tech motherfucker. Fuck does he know about fabrics with a fine hand and a good fit that only comes with a personal interaction with the product?

Hooooly shit there's so many nails out there, said the hammer.
posted by basicchannel at 11:07 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The car being relevant for when UPS fails to exert any effort at delivery and your package ends up in the back of beyond.
posted by hoyland at 11:08 AM on January 31, 2013


I heard the desktop is dying as well...
posted by juiceCake at 11:17 AM on January 31, 2013


Retail needs to look closely at the pee business. Seriously. I just signed up to have my urine analyzed for stone-prevention purposes. It was a model e-commerce shipping experience. Basically, they're sending you a container that you pee in and send back. But imagine the plastic tube is a pair of shoes, and I put my feet in them instead of my pee. I receive a large box containing the return-shipping box. Inside that box are the shoes. I triy them, I didn't like them, I may or may not pee on them, but all I have to do to get them out of my life is throw them into the shipping box, slap on the preaddressed shipping label, and drop them into a Fed Ex kiosk. I guess Zappos is similar but I don't think they give you a preaddressed shipping box.

Shoprunner comes close as the shipping facilitator. If there were a Shoprunner type platform that online merchants pretty much universally partnered with, and those merchants picked up the cost (shoprunner charges users $80 a year), and there were shoprunner kiosks with the ubiquity of, say redbox (or FedEx), that to me would be the bricks-and-mortar killer. Right now I only shop at real stores if I need something right away, or if I need to touch it before buying.

If I could order products just to touch/look at them, and then easily return what I didn't want by dropping them off in a kiosk at no charge, I would never step in a store that wasn't a pharmacy or grocery again.

The packaging of course is going to need to get way different. If I have to destroy packaging in order to try the item, and am forced to ship back a mangled mess, that's going to cost the retailer too much in re-packaging. Most retail packaging is based on shelf sales, it needs to be based on shipping sales.

Having said all that, I will miss stores like Best Buy, which exists for me solely as a showroom for stuff I go home and buy online from somebody else.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:18 AM on January 31, 2013


I don't think brick and mortar stores are going away. The way they operate is changing, but there are still plenty of items that make more sense to buy in person than online.

That said, what would happen to the economy if retail withered up? In the US, 10 % of Americans work in retail (this graph shows 15% in "Wholesale and retail, but I at least 10% is backed up by other sources). What would happen to all of those workers. Sure, some could get into warehouse work (which is being increasingly automated) but that would help only a fraction of the now unemployed retail workers.
posted by drezdn at 11:22 AM on January 31, 2013


Although, surely a better model for clothes shopping is a body scanner that measures you accurately so that an online company can custom build clothes for you. Combine the scanner with a visualizer that allows you to adjust the fit ("looser", "slimmer")

Holy shit. You just made the XBox Kinect useful. Someone make this happen.
posted by sourwookie at 11:22 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Best Buy just announced an hour ago they are shutting all of their big box stores in Canada and are laying off 900 people (Best Buy owns another Future Shop, another big box retailer in Canada, and the two stores are sometimes located side-by-side in Canada).
posted by KokuRyu at 11:28 AM on January 31, 2013


And yet local inventory and delivery services like Postmates make local retailer even stronger than Amazon. Big Box retailers will die, yes. But that will only help Small Businesses. [knocks on wood]
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:29 AM on January 31, 2013


Couple examples where retail is just stupid.

I used Deal Extreme a couple weeks ago to buy nail clippers and a loop-style blackhead remover. It cost me less ($4) to have those two items sent from Hong Kong delivered directly to my mailbox than it would have for me to walk five minutes down the street to buy just the clippers from the PharmaPlus ($4.60). And the clippers are better quality. The only downside is that I have to wait 4-6 weeks for stuff from Deal Extreme. And for non-essentials, I am totally fine with that.

My partner has an extremely hard to fit, even for a female, figure. And prefers to dress in a masculine style. We spent ten minutes measuring her contours carefully and filled out a form on a website. Now she orders bespoke work clothes to be made out of excellent fabric that fit her precisely and are very well made. They're made in India, and by people who earn rather more money than those who assemble off-the-rack clothes in Bangladesh for name brands sold in the shops here that are not even available to fit her and even if they did fit, would cost at least as much for worse quality.

In the nail clippers example, the economics of not putting the clippers in packaging and putting them in a warehouse and trucking them across Canada putting them on pegs at the store and all the other retail shit just makes them so expensive that it is cheaper end-to-end for them to basically stay at the factory and sit there in a huge bin of nail clippers until they're needed then be put in a parcel and sent only to me. It's crazy!

In the clothing example, the whole issue of "off the rack" is turned on its head. If there were any way for us to buy clothing locally that would fit and was of good quality and even remotely affordable, we'd buy it. But because of the economies of scale, no factory makes clothes that fit my partner's size and style and so she has a choice of wearing clothes that do not fit, or clothes she does not like.

Those are just two examples. Probably 95% of the durable goods we buy we never lay eyes on before we own. Retail outlets simply don't have what we want.

I wouldn't say retail is dead, though. It's just turning into a niche marketplace for stuff you absolutely must try-before-you-buy, or stuff you absolutely must have now.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:30 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know, for online tailoring (along the lines of what grubby is talking about) I can think of a couple of techniques that would allow for easy measuring, one more expensive than the other.

The first is those millimeter-wave scanners like they make you go through at airports now. You could go to a kiosk somewhere and get scanned, a computer would make the necessary interpolations to convert the image into an accurate set of measurements, and voila.

Alternatively, and more cheaply, an online retailer could ship you a calibrated background image (like a checkerboard where the squares are all of known size) and you would stand in front of it and have a camera on a tripod take several pictures of you from a few different angles. Upload the pictures and, again, a computer would calculate your measurements.

Alternatively alternatively, the company could just send someone around to your house with a measuring tape to take your measurements, or you could just take your own or have a friend do it, although that probably wouldn't be as accurate.

Point being, there are actually plenty of ways that this could work. There are other problems of course, but getting made-to-measure clothes done online is a problem that could definitely be solved, and probably already has been. There are in fact plenty of online tailors out there already, I believe.
posted by Scientist at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


a fundamentally implausible economic structure to the minds of wealthy, highly educated technological elites with big Internet pipes and safe, convenient places to have things shipped to.

FTFy'all
posted by PsychoTherapist at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also: the death of nearly every independent bookstore in the US.

That death has been greatly exaggerated. And will only get better as b&ns finally close down.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't say retail is dead, though. It's just turning into a niche marketplace for stuff you absolutely must try-before-you-buy, or stuff you absolutely must have now.

Except that isn't really a niche marketplace, I shouldn't think.

Produce is never really going to work well this way. Not the fresh stuff. It's heavy, bulky, doesn't ship well/cheaply, and needs to be consumed that day or within a few days. Media coverage notwithstanding, Americans still eat a shit-ton of produce. There are probably some foods that will work with an online model--my wife has a "subscription" on Amazon which sends her an order of tea every few months--but everyday shopping is not going to work.

And I seriously question the efficiency of buying clothes this way. I think the suggestion above, that retail stores serve as show-rooms where you come in to try stuff on and then get it shipped home, are about as good as this is going to get. It seems to me that the cost of shipping a bunch of sizes to a consumer, having them keep the one that fits, and then shipping the rest of them back, would quickly become prohibitive, especially in the majority of the market which is pretty low-margin. So while high-end designers might be able to get away with this, most people don't shop there for most of their shopping.

Cars are hardly a niche market, and those are already about as online as they're going to get. There's really no way of doing this without some kind of in-person transaction at some point.

But I think the "absolutely must have now" market may actually take a hit for those things which are already feasible for ecommerce. Amazon is getting pretty close to same-day delivery. I'd need to have something right this minute to make that the only reason I couldn't deal with same-day or next-day shipping.
posted by valkyryn at 11:43 AM on January 31, 2013


Andreessen is making an interesting argument that's being lost here. Online sales are steadily capturing market share, going from about 1% to 5% of retail sales in the last decade. There's no reason to think that will stop any time soon.

The growth is more or less linear, but the effect this has on retail is not linear. To take an easy example, think about restaurants: profit margins are often only 1 or 2%, and two-thirds of the expenses are fixed costs. If restaurant attendance goes down by 5%, a lot more than 5% of restaurants will go out of business.

So we've already seen how this plays out online with bookstores and travel agencies. Large bookstores are more or less over -- not because Amazon captured 100% of the market, but because it captured 20% of the market, and drove down the prices bookstores could charge at the same time, and they crossed a line where they were no longer profitable.

So what's happening with this "online sales as percent of retail" chart that's crept up from 1% to 5%? It's not that 5% of retail has been uniformly replaced. It's that some new kind of store is being pushed closer and closer to insolvency. Office supplies? Kitchenware? Hardware? Maybe you like buying hammers in person or being able to run over for extra printer paper at the last minute -- but if hardware stores or office supply stores are running close to the red (no idea if they are, just an example), and a few more people start buying their toasters and cell phones online, they'll cross the profitability line and it won't matter where you shop.

So then (I think) Andreessen is imagining a snowball effect to bend this curve over the next decade. It would go like this: when bookstores and travel agents go out of business, even people who prefer buying those things in person have to go online. So you cross the profitability line in a given industry, and online sales get a big jump in that industry. But that also means that you have a bunch of new consumers who have to learn to buy tickets or paperbacks online. Once they're used to entering their credit card number in a website (this is a big hurdle for some older people I've talked to), maybe some of them like the price search or the convenience, and decide to buy their next toaster the same way. Crossing the profitability line in one industry makes it more likely that you'll cross the line in another industry. And then, economies of scale start kicking in -- a firm that's five times as large as it was a decade ago can negotiate lower prices, and can build warehouses outside every major city, and can ship things to your house in two days for free ...

There will be some retail industries that are profitable, at a smaller scale, because enough people like buying those things in person. But don't be confident that retail in general will be as impervious in the next ten years as it was in the last ten years -- that ignores what did happen in the last ten years.

(I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing -- I think it's both, but will have to save it.)
posted by jhc at 11:53 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Where that line gets drawn is arguable valkyryn, and that's what makes this predition interesting.

So let's consider Walmart's vulnerability here. Pharmacy, online. Electronics, books, music and videos, all online. Durable & white goods, particularly brand-name ones, likely entirely on line. why buy razor blades or dishwashers in the store? Will people want a demo room for the white goods and furniture?

What does that leave? Clothing and food mostly. The jewelry department, maybe.

Much food could be home delivered, without a lot of trouble: jars of pickles, bottles of mustard, boxes of cereal, even milk and juice. Fresh produce and meats would be likely all that's left, and that's the low-margin stuff.

Clothing will be cannibalized by the commodity items: underwear, socks, t-shirts.

You can argue over where the line will be drawn, but it's clear that a lot of merchandise categories will entirely or mostly become online only, while the in-store segment will likely be much smaller than it is now, and may also be the high-cost, low margin items of today. A lot of money is going to come out of retail in the next decade, I think.
posted by bonehead at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2013


If you'll permit the OP to weigh in:
I posted this also disagreeing with Andreessen's blanket prediction. However, as pointed out by many, retail extinction is happening across a variety of retail categories. And smart people are cooking up ideas in all the other categories, so the disruptive onslaught will continue.

The outcome won't be total extinction, but certainly massive disruption is possible. One way or another, you'll pay a convenience premium at retailers that survive — just as you already do when you buy a pound of butter at the convenience store rather than the supermarket.

One category that I've often wondered about is automotive retailing. Yes, when your old car breaks down you may need a new one today. But consumers could save a lot of money if the cost of all that inventory were not priced into cars. Why can't I show up at the dealer, drive a demo, decide to buy, order precisely the options I want, have it manufactured and delivered to me in a few weeks, and get a loaner in the meantime if I need it?
posted by beagle at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2013


Best Buy just announced an hour ago they are shutting all of their big box stores in Canada and are laying off 900 people (Best Buy owns another Future Shop, another big box retailer in Canada, and the two stores are sometimes located side-by-side in Canada).

One of the reasons cited is:

Best Buy has been facing tough competition from discounters and online retailers, a victim of what’s known as “showrooming” — when people browse in stores and then buy the products more cheaply online from competitors such as Amazon.

Source

Which is interesting because I have always got them to price match plus an additional 10% off by showing them the price of the same item online at other stores. Of course this doesn't help their margins, but it helped prevent the whole ordering online thing or going to another store. When I helped my father buy his TV there that was a very unpleasant experience (except the price). It was like we were buying a car. The worst part is when they tried to sell us colour calibration and my sister said "So you're going to sell us a TV that is close to $2000 without proper colour?" or something to that effect.

The same article says they are closing 15 stores across Canada out of a total of 58 (Best Buy) and 139 (Future Shop). I can count more than full 15 full size stores in Southern Ontario so I'm not sure they are shutting all of their big box stores. I have my doubts about the Internet being the chief culprit rather than just a factor among many.
posted by juiceCake at 12:01 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


That death has been greatly exaggerated.

I see in that article one independent store, open less than a year, in one of the most populous urban areas in the US, saying they have a chance to survive against Amazon. I wish them luck, but there's a lot of wishful thinking going on there for a store in a metro area with millions of local customers.

Meanwhile, Cody's Books in Berkeley is dead, and Black Oak Books went bankrupt, erased all the customer store credit (with a generous grace period, to be fair) and reopened in an area with much less foot traffic. Over in San Francisco, Stacey's, which was around for 85 years, closed in 2009.

Amazon has the efficiency to survive down times. And an independent can live off the wealth of its founders for a while, and maybe can succeed by specializing (rare books, used books, some hyper-local need). But as a general purpose and sustainable book store? Fuhgeddaboutit. The owners would make better money investing in almost anything but a book store.
posted by zippy at 12:03 PM on January 31, 2013


Related: Louis CK speaks on this topic on the Opie & Anthony show:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
posted by NoMich at 12:04 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


That death has been greatly exaggerated. And will only get better as b&ns finally close down.

The three year old article you link to does not actually make the case that the death of the small independent bookstore has been greatly exaggerated. It speculates that there is a possibility that they might be able to find a niche once the big box bookstores finally die off. And the niche they're speculating about is bricks-and-mortar sales of ebooks, which has a strong air of whistling past the graveyard to me. Now, that's not to say it won't happen; people are pretty unpredictable. But I think it's just as likely to picture such places as essentially cafes that happen to sell books on the side as really viable independent bookstores on the old model.
posted by yoink at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think there's too much stuff that people buy because they need it now for retail to go away very much. When I go to CVS and buy razor blades it's because I'm out of razor blades, the same pretty much any pharmacy item and some groceries. I don't foresee a world where enough people are doing enough in advance planning to have delivery be a particularly viable option for day to day goods.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2013


You know who is not dying, though? Costco. Costco is fucking PACKED all the time. I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't Costco also putting pressure on BestBuy and the other "specialty" retailers. Costco prices are pretty great, and their return policy is also great.

(Canadians take note, non-members can buy from costco.ca, shipping is free, and you can return stuff to any showroom. It is a hell of a deal.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2013


The owners would make better money investing in almost anything but a book store.

Really? How about a record store? E-readers can't replace books, and yes, filling a niche is the key. Books are a hobby. There are still baseball card stores with owners smart enough to stock candy too.

The statement I was disagreeing with is "See also: the death of nearly every independent bookstore in the US." This is false. Many independent bookstores are flourishing as fads like Fantasy, Erotic Horror, and Diet books blow up and they agilely stock them. Businesses close for lots of reasons, and I'm sure you can still find one in San Francisco. As big box bookstores close small mom & pop ones will pop up to replace them for the folks like me who want to actually walk around and buy a big piece of paper.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh Marc Andersen, I am rolling my eyes SO HARD at you. Your ilk have been proclaiming the death of retail for 15 years. Please stop presenting your wishful thinking as fact.
posted by MissySedai at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2013


Why can't I show up at the dealer, drive a demo, decide to buy, order precisely the options I want, have it manufactured and delivered to me in a few weeks, and get a loaner in the meantime if I need it?

Other than the loaner, you sort-of already can do that. Of course, what the dealer actually does is take your order and scan the inventories of other dealerships in the region, find a car matching your order, and arranges a store-to-store trade. The effective result is that you got the car you ordered. The first new car I ever bought was done exactly like that...back in 1983. I had the car within a week of making my order.

I'm not sure the economics work for keeping assembly lines (and the JIT supply chain feeding them) up-and-running to do bespoke Escorts on what would be a more irregular basis than usual. I suppose once all humans are eliminated from the assembly line, then it could work.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2013


Costco prices are pretty great, and their return policy is also great.

They also treat their employees like human beings!
posted by griphus at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Brick-n-mortar are selling convenience and timeliness. The question is, is that enough to keep them in business?

Friend of mine went on vacation, and his teenage son *had* to bring his XBox & monitor along. Only they forgot the HDMI-to-DVI adapter cable. So he went to Best Buy where they could get a new one for $24.99.

I looked it up on monoprice for him; with overnight shipping to their hotel, he could have HDMI-to-DVI cable for $27.57 ($3.23 for the cable, and $24.34 for shipping). If the son could wait for 2-day shipping, the price total dropped to $16.99.

In the end, they wound up playing Settlers of Catan instead of XBox.
posted by fings at 12:35 PM on January 31, 2013


I love a happy ending.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


When I go to CVS and buy razor blades it's because I'm out of razor blades, the same pretty much any pharmacy item and some groceries. I don't foresee a world where enough people are doing enough in advance planning to have delivery be a particularly viable option for day to day goods.

I can at least see a world where that would happen. For the kind of commonly-used goods you're talking about, there's no reason they can't be delivered for free within about four hours -- if we get to where Amazon will be driving a truck from their warehouse to my street within the next four hours anyway, then why not?

If that happens, it actually becomes a good bit more convenient for me than CVS. Right now, if I run out of something it'll be a week of thinking "huh, this razor's really dull" or "ok, that's the last of the toothpaste," and then instantly forgetting about it. If I could think about it, order it in 30 seconds, and have it show up on my porch the same afternoon, it would not only cost less, offer me more options and take less of my time, it would require less advance planning and I'd have it sooner. This goes double for anything more out of my way than CVS.

All of this sounds embarrassingly trivial, and honestly I'm not saying the world should care how many seconds it takes me to buy toothpaste. But you multiply it by a few hundred million people looking for the easiest way to get through their day and it gets kind of interesting.
posted by jhc at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apologies if this was posted and I missed it, but it might be worth noting that more than 70% of the US population lives in just 486 "urbanized areas." More than half the population is in the top 48 urbanized areas. So (for example) if there's some business model that would threaten most retail stores but relies on having a warehouse an hour's drive away, we're not talking about very many warehouses to reach more than half the population.

Relatedly, if Amazon is a charitable organization then I am the Pope.
posted by jhc at 12:51 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think there's too much stuff that people buy because they need it now for retail to go away very much. When I go to CVS and buy razor blades it's because I'm out of razor blades, the same pretty much any pharmacy item and some groceries.

The "need it now" thing certainly has some weight, but something like razor blades is actually a crappy example. Razor blades is exactly the kind of thing I will never buy from a bricks and mortar store again, unless I find myself on vacation somewhere and failed to pack any. Razorblades are the kind of thing that will cost something like ten times as much at my local supermarket than they do online--and they're very much the kind of thing that you can foresee yourself running out of in sufficient time to place and order (if I put the very last blade in the house into my razor I can go to Amazon that day and have a year's supply of new blades on my doorstep in two days).

But leaving razorblades--as a specific example--aside; almost everything I buy from the supermarket would make more sense as a home-delivered item. It's utterly crazy as a matter of time-management and as a matter of environmental impact that hundreds of people make separate trips to the supermarket using their individual cars to haul a couple of bags of groceries rather than having one delivery van do the rounds of the neighborhood. The only thing sold by our supermarket that I would need to actually eyeball is vegetables and fruit, and these days I buy almost all that stuff at the local farmer's market anyway.

And if supermarkets and other local stores start getting displaced by online services of one kind or another same-day online purchasing will become much, much cheaper than it currently is. If you've got fleets of vehicles constantly cruising the neighborhoods delivering goods from local warehouses, it's going to be incredibly easy to have a system where you can go online and order your emergency razorblades and they simply get added to the next vanload to leave from your nearest distribution center.
posted by yoink at 1:06 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


matcha action: An idea I had which would combine the best of both worlds for clothing/shoe shopping would be a store that stocked all sizes and colors of what they sold, but only a couple samples of each. You could try on what you wanted, but instead of going home with it, the store could order it for you, and you could go pick it up in a couple days. Stores may not have room for a large number of every size of everything they sell in petite, regular, and tall, but surely they could stock 1-2 of each?

This is happening.
posted by purpleclover at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's utterly crazy as a matter of time-management and as a matter of environmental impact that hundreds of people make separate trips to the supermarket using their individual cars to haul a couple of bags of groceries rather than having one delivery van do the rounds of the neighborhood.

Admittedly, people in the US who don't drive to the grocery store are rare, but I make one car trip to the grocery store a week at most (Sundays when I tend to buy stuff for the week and which regularly features a whole chicken I don't feel like carrying). Any other trips are walking and all trips to the pharmacy for shampoo or whatever are walking.

My environmental impact is a lot greater if I order stuff online than if I just walk down to the store and buy it.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:18 PM on January 31, 2013


Basically, they're sending you a container that you pee in and send back.

Wow. Piero Manzoni really was ahead of his time.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:21 PM on January 31, 2013


Retail needs to look closely at the pee business. Seriously. I just signed up to have my urine analyzed for stone-prevention purposes. It was a model e-commerce shipping experience. Basically, they're sending you a container that you pee in and send back. But imagine the plastic tube is a pair of shoes, and I put my feet in them instead of my pee. I receive a large box containing the return-shipping box. Inside that box are the shoes. I triy them, I didn't like them, I may or may not pee on them, but all I have to do to get them out of my life is throw them into the shipping box, slap on the preaddressed shipping label, and drop them into a Fed Ex kiosk. I guess Zappos is similar but I don't think they give you a preaddressed shipping box.

FYI there's already services that do something similar. I'm signed up to the mailing list for one. You fill in your credit card details, pick an interval, then at that interval, they send you a new box of clothes picked out by their people based on the measurements you send in, so you have good looking outfits arriving at regular intervals. You keep what you want and they charge you for it and you just send the rest back. It's pretty rad. I'm signing up once I shed a few more pounds.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:26 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't foresee a world where enough people are doing enough in advance planning to have delivery be a particularly viable option for day to day goods.

Isn't it the other way around? I don't really plan my day-to-day life at all, the way some people have a weekly shopping trip or a daily errand run after work - I just go to the store when I need something. It's a nuisance, I always procrastinate, and I have discovered that Amazon will ship me a dozen bars of soap or tubes of toothpaste or boxes of razorblades in less time than it generally takes for me to actually get around to visiting the store in person.

The cool side benefit is that I then have an urge to amortize out the cost of shipping, so I buy months' worth of whatever it is I need. Longer intervals between purchases means far less time wasted thinking about it, and that's a good thing.

Clothing will be cannibalized by the commodity items: underwear, socks, t-shirts.

Good point, I can't actually remember the last time I bought any of those things in a real store: but these are not items you need to try on before buying.

Why can't I show up at the dealer, drive a demo, decide to buy, order precisely the options I want, have it manufactured and delivered to me in a few weeks, and get a loaner in the meantime if I need it?

Isn't that how auto sales work in Europe? My understanding is that the American-style lot full of brand new cars basically doesn't exist there, that you go look at the demo models and then place an order, which is then manufactured and delivered to you. It doesn't sound like much fun, but I never buy new cars anyway.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:43 PM on January 31, 2013


But who is going to work all these delivery jobs, boxing up our razor blades for same day delivery and so on? They are going to be making shit wages under very precarious conditions with probably almost no ability to predict which days they'll be working - or else it will stop being cheaper than physical stores. These jobs will almost certainly be worse than working fast food. Oh, it won't be a "worse" experience for anyone who can afford a subscription clothes service (!), but it will sure as shit be a worse experience for an awful lot of people. I mean, did everyone on this thread miss the whole nightmare work experience for people who do fulfillment for Amazon?

And I point out that while creatives and knowledge workers and so on may think that we/they are exempt from this stuff - let the little people work in 100 degree temps packing up our razorblades! - downward wage pressure is downward wage pressure, and it tends to ripple through the economy. Also, do you want your kids or your downsized sixty-year-old dad who's just trying to keep some money coming for the next eight years working under those conditions?

That's not to say that retail is awesome, but the downward price pressure in this type of situation comes as much from both deskilling jobs and screwing a vulnerable employee population (all those warehouses in the middle of nowhere? Company towns!) as from getting rid of the storefront.
posted by Frowner at 2:05 PM on January 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Those are perfectly reasonable things to be anxious about, Frowner, but they're not reasons to expect bricks-and-mortar stores to thrive. What you're saying is that moving shopping online is going to save an enormous amount of money for the people selling us stuff--so you're agreeing with the premise of the article.

As to whether this makes the world better or worse overall, I think it's difficult to foretell. There are lots of jobs that used to exist that don't exist any more and it's not clear that that's always a net overall negative for the overall wellbeing of the nation. There's absolutely no doubt that moving shopping online is attractive to businesses because it means employing fewer people to get the merchandise to the customers, so the replacement of bricks and mortar stores with online shopping is going to mean a whole lot of jobs that currently exist no longer existing. It doesn't immediately follow, however, that this means that all the people who used to do those jobs suddenly become unemployed forever (or displace other currently employed people into the ranks of the unemployed). An economy is not made up of some fixed total quantity of jobs that slowly get replaced--one by one--by automation.
posted by yoink at 2:24 PM on January 31, 2013


Re: online clothing shopping, I wonder if someone could put together a site where you could post your measurements, and list clothing items that fit you (along with a picture). Then, when you're shopping online, you could see how that specific item fits on people with roughly your measurements. You'd have to make it fun/interesting somehow since measuring yourself and entering clothing items would be a lot of work. But if you had a critical mass of slightly obsessive members (similar to Wikipedia) you could probably index a good fraction of the clothing from major brands.
posted by miyabo at 3:04 PM on January 31, 2013


When I go to CVS and buy razor blades it's because I'm out of razor blades, the same pretty much any pharmacy item and some groceries. I don't foresee a world where enough people are doing enough in advance planning to have delivery be a particularly viable option for day to day goods.

Subscriptions. I already do it with razors and am already looking into doing it with other necessities.
posted by sourwookie at 3:25 PM on January 31, 2013


But who is going to work all these delivery jobs, boxing up our razor blades for same day delivery and so on?

Robots?
posted by Mars Saxman at 3:28 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


The shopping districts in most major cities I've been to recently certainly don't seem to be having any trouble. Oxford St London is packed every single day.

The main thing this article misses is that for a lot of people "Shopping" isn't just buying stuff. Its an activity in itself. That's what you do for fun on a Saturday Morning.

A lot of people actually enjoy shopping for clothes and nick-nacks. I used to. Just see what's in, try some things on, look at some expensive kitchen products that I don't need. Have a coffee. Real Life shopping is entertainment.

What are people supposed to do with their Saturdays if they can't go shopping because all the shops have closed?
posted by mary8nne at 3:54 PM on January 31, 2013


I think sometimes internet people forget that there are people who like going outside and doing things and that not everyone wants to spend every waking moment in front of a screen.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:19 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


What are people supposed to do with their Saturdays if they can't go shopping because all the shops have closed?

But as I said above, liking the activity of "going shopping" won't actually keep the shops in business if a significant enough percentage of people stop actually buying stuff at the shops. I mean, you can spend a day "going shopping"--head off to the mall or downtown and go in and out of shops looking at stuff and trying stuff on--but if you then head home and buy the things you liked online because they're cheaper--or even if it's just that the range of things you buy shrinks significantly because you've done a substantial subsection of your shopping online before you go--then that activity may not be enough to keep the shops in business. There'll still be business for the cafes and restaurants and such, but it may get harder and harder for shops to stay in business.

No doubt we won't really notice this for a while; it will simply present itself as more peripheral malls and shopping centers and secondary/tertiary shopping streets closing down or converting to pop-up stores and thrift stores--there'll be enough business in town for 6 Banana Republics but not the current 10, that kind of thing. But eventually that's the kind of evolution that could really change the shape of our cities and our lives.
posted by yoink at 4:31 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


matcha action: An idea I had which would combine the best of both worlds for clothing/shoe shopping would be a store that stocked all sizes and colors of what they sold, but only a couple samples of each. You could try on what you wanted, but instead of going home with it, the store could order it for you, and you could go pick it up in a couple days. Stores may not have room for a large number of every size of everything they sell in petite, regular, and tall, but surely they could stock 1-2 of each?

This is happening.


The places mentioned in the Times article either sold clothing only for men or, bizarrely, in the case of PiperLime, didn't appear to stock different inseams of pants, but this would make me so, so, so happy if it were to exist in a useful way for me. I would gladly wait a few days for an item of clothing if it meant that I could actually try it on first, without having to guess where the knee might hit me if I ordered a certain pant in a 'tall'.
posted by matcha action at 6:03 PM on January 31, 2013


Man I really hope online shopping doesn't kill stores like Canadian Tire, Auto parts stores, or even hardware/home improvement stores. The last time I went to Canadian tire I needed a 10 mm Allan key socket Right Now not in 4 hour hours (or more like 1 day at best and 2-3 days more likely) so I could torque the head on my car. A large number of my purchases are like this. I don't want to wait a couple days for Amazon to ship me a toilet when mine fails.
posted by Mitheral at 7:28 PM on January 31, 2013


I am not sure I get the 'but people will always want stores for groceries so they can eyeball the fruit' line of reasoning. I live in the UK and I get all my groceries online now - my 'main' shopping is through Waitrose and they deliver to my door, and my fruit and veg is through a company called Riverford which is almost like a Farmers' Market online once a week. Sure, I don't get to poke the pear before I buy it, but they provide consistently excellent produce so I trust them to send me good stuff. And it is in their interest - if they send me crap produce, I stop using them (as I did with another veg box scheme). The one time I got something that wasn't really good I emailed them to say so, more as a heads up than a complaint. In return I got lots of free stuff and an apology. And it also ends up not just being more convenient, but cheaper shopping online as I don't find myself wandering around buying crap I don't need just because it is there. And yes, it is better from an environmental standpoint too.

I still love farmers' markets etc. but I don't live in an area where that is a viable alternative. But I now do much of my shopping for most things online. I don't like driving, and living in the UK means most things get delivered pretty quickly. One of the few things I don't order much online is yarn, as the colours and textures can be so variable (and my friend owns a yarn shop nearby ...) but this year when I move to an area that probably won't have a yarn shop nearby I will probably end up buying that online too.

Lastly - not all online retail means that small businesses are shut down and the mega-corps win. Other than Waitrose (which is acutally part of John Lewis and therefore an employee-owned retailer) most of my online buying is from small businesses, co-operative and individuals on sites like etsy. The idea that people who currently try to do their best and support small businesses are not going to be able to do that as retail moves online is a bit false - by having access to the internet I have a lot more chances to buy from independent and ethical retailers.
posted by Megami at 1:29 AM on February 1, 2013


When I think about it, I actually only end up in a non-food/alcohol store once a month or so at most. The thing about brick-and-mortar stores is that they never have what you want. You waste hours to drive out to the suburbs to find the damn store and then they don't actually have the size or model of the thing that you want anyway. So you go home and order the damn thing online which you should have done in the first place and not wasted your Saturday afternoon fighting suburban traffic and wasting gas.
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 AM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


« Older A Daruma doll will always remind you of your goal....  |  Is being cool too much work? ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments