lovehate: My Shopping Evolution

The world wide web has many positive and negative attributes not the least of which, both positive and negative, is eliminating my need and desire to ever visit brick and mortar stores again.
I remember growing up in a time when the Mall was the touchstone of all social and pop cultural advancement. As an early teen I could easily wander from checking out the freaky animals at the pet store to meeting a friend who worked at the record store (they were still called record stores then) to checking out the t-shirt shack, food court, music sections of department stores, book stores and basically wander around aimlessly for hours. This was all, of course, before driving was an option and before I was permitted to hop the bus downtown.
Upon gaining the bus permission, my browsing became refined. The downtown core held five record shops worth checking out on a weekly basis with at least two bookstores and two comic book shops. There were also a couple of television stores that carried the latest video game cartridges for Atari, Intellivision, Colecovision, and, a couple of years later, Commodore 64 software. This was the first time in my life I could feel ahead of the curve on things. This was the time I was reading magazines on video games, musical instruments, and collectibles. I knew when things were coming out a month in advance and could save up money for something I really wanted because I'd read the advance reviews.
The ability to drive and a growing experience at the specialized shops allowed me to winnow down my browsing even further. I knew the best stores to maintain my comic book collection, my sports card collection, my video game addiction and even had "frequent buyer" discounts on all the LPs and cassettes I bought. Each Friday night would be a comic and record run. Each Saturday would be sports cards and video games. I had it down to a system, and the only thing that killed the system was my burgeoning knowledge.
You see, I am, by nature, a collector. I have to get parts three and four if I've got parts one and two. I purchased comic book series far after they ever remained good just for the completist in me. I would buy every album a band put out if I liked the first one I bought. I would sometimes avoid a comic book series or novel series altogether if I'd missed the first one or two installments. I liked to get in on the ground floor... it was for this reason I eschewed coming in late to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics and instead turned to the radical underground stylings of the Adolescent Radioactive Blackbelt Hamsters.


But knowledge is a costly thing. I soon found I could not keep up with everything I wanted to maintain this completist lifestyle and, as such, started to give up things altogether. I stopped buying comic books. I gave up hockey cards. I radically slowed down book buying. I focused on music and, while trying to keep up with growing PC options, the costs really put them out of my league. Besides, I had already learned how to tape over a notch in a 5.25" floppy in order to copy and recopy to my heart's content.
I moved into a time period where the only interest in any mall was books (more as a passing interest than a purchase) and music. And even then, the mp3 scene was bursting out with Napster and Gnutella clients. I had moved my browsing from windows and aisles onto web and ftp sites. I, essentially, forsook the mall.
I have the city's only worthwhile mall, by all accounts, a five minute walk from my house and I haven't been there in two years except to meet a friend at a restaurant inside. I remember renewing my license plate stickers two years ago at a kiosk just inside the doorway. I don't know or care to know any of the stores contained therein except for the ones with their illuminated signs emblazoned on the outside. I have been shopping online for over a decade. I remember pooling friends together to buy 500 blank CD-Rs and 1000 CD-R sleeves to get a discount rate. I research, discover, and comparison shop without leaving the comforts of home.

When I walk into the Brick & Mortar store these days, I feel out of place. I see people wandering around aimlessly looking at things and often feel that I should be doing so as well. I'll walk up and down the aisles looking at things I know about, don't want, and wonder why anyone would ever that price for it. When a sales clerk asks if I need help, I'll play the game and say, "No, I'm just looking." I don't want to make the clerks feel bad by letting them in on the fact that their jobs have become meaningless to me unless they have to unlock a display case. I try to make my Brick & Mortar experiences as long as possible to soak in the ritual that accompanies so many of the hoards that still shuffle aimlessly between the shelves.

In reality, but for checkout lines and slow debit machines, I should be out of any store in three minutes or less. I don't want the extended warranty. I don't want to upgrade to the "next" level. I don't want any advice from a clerk who's extent of technological knowledge is capped at chat clients and X-Box Live. CompUSA and Circuit City are victims of me and those like me who now have the tool to do the research, the comparison and often the purchase itself. Gone are the days of trusting a sales clerk to tell you if something is good. I've got a world of reviewers at my disposal and an endless supply of merchants willing to ship worldwide to my door.

Yesterday was Boxing Day in Canada, kind of like Black Friday in the US, and I haven't been there for years to take part. Even the online specials are almost meaningless. Unless I feel like a visceral cattle call in my near future, don't ever expect to see me rubbernecking the Brick & Mortars again. I've evolved.

the madding crowd

2 responses
Interesting post -- I think that the bricks and mortar need to evolve too in order to survive. I think that stores should evolve from trying to sell you something to try to educate on the products -- In doing so they will sell far more products. This would mean that they actually have to hire people who they can train and retain instead of the zombie clerks they have evolved to today.

Say 20 years ago that person at the record store actually knew a great deal about music. Today at HMV very few actually know about all of the music – too big, too diverse, too many products beyond music.

Lets face it, many products today are complicated. It would be great to go to a store to actually learn about a new product. Try it, play with it and see if it meets your needs. Online is great as many companies have videos on how the products work (e.g. technology products), but that only goes so far. You can’t ask questions, you can’t touch it. Online great for researching a product like a new car purchase, but in the end the feel of the test drive is what counts. Online is fine for books or CDs.

The store today has lost the product support role. It now ships your broken product to somewhere else to be fixed – a centralized product fixing centre. People at the store have no idea how the products work. Maybe they could avoid the 2 week delay by simply replacing a switch on site. Nope.

Stores that I think are trying to evolve: home depot – classes on how to install drywall, the apple store, bestbuy (no commission and some people in that store actually know what a dual out on a video card means and where to get the best deal on an aftermarket video card). Sure they have sales in mind but I am totally fine with that. Software companies do a good job of this evolution with the timed out demo versions – these are great as they allow you to try it free on your own computer. Some software companies will let you keep the demo or education version (with a watermark) to allow you to educate yourself on the product and buy it when you are ready.

I think this purchasing ecosystem is too complicated today. 80 years ago when you wanted to buy groceries you walked to your corner store, decided what you wanted, put them in a paper bag, and the person at the counter marked on a piece of paper how much you purchased (i.e. your tab). You did this often and benefited from fresh fruit. Today you drive from suburbia to your supermall, park on a huge parking lot and walk the equivalent distance as to the corner store, fill up your shopping cart with a week or two of groceries, pull out your credit card, make a transaction that sends data to your credit card company somewhere in texas, your credit card makes a transaction with your direct depoit bank account with a monthy statement, and they send a confirmation back in a few seconds assuming that the internet or communications lines are working properly that day within the moneris system. Once complete the superstore deducts the product count from their inventory and an email is sent to request new products to sustain their inventory. Is this ecosystem really a good thing? I don’t know anyone in texas, I don’t even know anyone at my bank. While I recognize faces at my supermall I really could not tell you one thing about any person there, nor do I know any of their names. I bet if I was around 80 years ago I would have known that person at the counter and they would have known me too.

Products and packaging are so complicated too – another enormous ecosystem. There was a bag of cookies on the table that were purchased at Walmart for roughly $1.00 CND. Wow i said $1.00 for a bag of cookies? Lets break that down. It was probably 1 bag in a lot of 100 million unit production line. The product went through years of intensive testing to ensure that the majority of people liked them before the CEO signed off to commit to full production. The ingredients were purchased in huge truckloads. The product line was probably huge, efficient, and required only a few people to fully operate. The packaging was three parts and was engineered using sophisticated software. An inner rigid plastic holder to ensure maximum cookie protection from shipping damage. A clear plastic cover to ensure maximum cookie health. And a glossy outer cover to ensure maximum cookie sales. The graphics were spectacular requiring even more complex software. The wording and text was localized for Canada and maybe even Ontario health regulations. The product would have been shipped from overseas to a dock somewhere in the US. Then trucked to the main Walmart distribution centre in the USA. Then possibly shipped from there to a Canadian distribution centre then to my nearby store. Inspected and logged every step of the way into Walmarts computer system – one of the largest computing centres on planet earth. Then we picked it up and brought it home after the transaction took place that I mentioned in the previous paragraph. All this for $1.00, wow that’s impressive yet complicated, involving so many people, expensive, lengthy process, risky, and with many points of failure along the way. In the end the cookies were good (not great), but I bet 80 years ago those corner store cookies were probably way better, cost less than $1.00, and maybe even still warm when you picked them up. All i wanted was a few cookies... I didn’t even want the entire bag.

How did our economy become so complicated, so many points of failure, and how did it evolve to obliterate that corner store? Are we better off today than we were 80 years ago? Is product variety better than knowing the clerk at the corner store or the music store? Is a credit card transaction and mobility better than off for a piece of paper with your tab on it? Is the future ordering pizza over the internet like the movie, “the Net”? What if these points of failure are realized during this downed economy... what if all credit card transactions are inoperable? What if that blackout we had a few years ago stretched from a weekend to a month or even 6 months? You think the economy is bad now? How could we go back? Have we come too far? Could we shift our economy back to something simple if something bad really did happened?

I rant.

I write this as a female who generally hates to shop, which of course pushes back against gender stereotypes. I do a great deal of shopping online because I hate the whole 'brick and mortar' experience (with the exception of gardening centres and arts and pottery shows, which I still love to shop at.) As someone who worked for over 10 years in retail, I support the premise that the job of sales clerks has definitely changed, and that there is a whole lot less knowledge. Before, I would have to visit several stores to find the best price and take up most of my day. Now I do one of two things. First example: I will research shoe brands on the internet and find out who carries them. I will then go to one shoe store and try the shoes to find what my size is. But I don't buy them in the store. I go online and buy the exact shoes I tried on for half the price. (No heels for this chick BTW.) Second example: this holiday I went online to check prices at various electronics stores so I could let hubby know where the best deal was. Then we went straight to the store--no browsing, no aimless driving around. I guess you could say I've combined the online and brick-and-mortar shopping thing to suit my needs.