Sunday, July 09, 2017

Shop 'til you don’t drop

The way people buy things has been changing over the past decade or so, and that’s made massive change in the retail industry. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the “de-malling” of the USA, a trend that will like spread to other countries. Shoppers still shop, of course, they just do it in a more modern way.

Earlier this week, Roger Green wrote about the closing of a Sears store and his connection to it. It’s part of a larger trend in the USA, in which the ailing Sears and Kmart are no different than any number of other retail chains that have disappeared in recent years.

The reasons that Sears and other stores are in decline or have closed are many, but one thing they do have in common is the rise of online shopping. Nearly every “bricks and mortar” store also has an online version, so why schlep all the way down to the store, find a parking place, and brave the weather and crowds when one can buy the same thing at home on a computer or smartphone?

I often use online stores to see what a store carries, but I still often got to a physical store to get the thing, mainly because I want it right away, not have to wait a couple days for it to show up. How much longer will that be the case?

Recently, I was doing this sort of thing—looking online to see what a store carried—and I noticed that they encouraged the use of a phone/tablet App to print out photos in their stores. A customer can pay to send the photo to be collected from any location of the chain, or they can pay to send the photo to a chain in the USA or one in the UK for someone else to collect—a friend or relative, for example. I thought this was a brilliant idea, not the least because people out and about with their mates might be tempted to pay to order a print of that blurry photo of them all having a session at their favourite pub. But that’s also why it’s so handy for most people: They usually have their phone with them, they can snap a photo and order a print.

I can order my groceries from my computer or on my phone, and have them delivered or I can pick them up in store. There are other Apps that could give me coupons (if I could be bothered…). And then there’s ordinary ordering products from my desk.

In New Zealand, this e-commerce thing has led the New Zealand Government to change the law so that overseas companies like Amazon and Apple must collect NZ Goods and Service Tax (GST – basically a sales tax). This was done because NZ-based retailers felt that overseas retailers had an unfair advantange in not having to pay GST when they did. Overseas retailers, they argued, got a 15% discount.

I has some sympathy for this position, but was nevertheless annoyed because price is not the only reason shop overseas—selection and availablity is an important issue, too (like me buying my underwear overseas). What this means is that we pay 15% higher prices for things we can’t get anywhere else. This made me a very unhappy shopper.

Still, the retail situation here is not nearly as dire as the USA, and while plenty of retail chains have gone bust over the past 10-15 years, malls are still around. Unlike the USA.

In the past, I’ve seen some of the YouYube series “Dead Malls” by Dan Bell, which he talks about in the TEDx talk video at the top of this post. In his videos, he explores dying and dead/abandoned malls, some of which look like a post-apocalyptic film set.

I came across that video by accident, because I watched another one that YouTube suggested I watch (why tonight, I have no idea; algorithms work in mysterious ways). That led me to another. Similar video, and the TEDx one.

The video suggested to me was this one from PBS NewsHour in November, 2014:

That led me watch the very similar video from CBS Sunday Morning in March of 2014:

The two videos make some very similar points, but with slightly different analysis. I thought they were both interesting in their own way. They, in turn, led me on to watch the TEDx video.

The reason I’m so fascinated by the topic of declining shopping malls is because in the mid-to-late 1970s, and off and on for years afterward, I visited malls a lot. In the 1970s, it was a place to hang out with friends, maybe see a movie, or have some lunch, but I don’t remember going there to actually shop very often. I did that mostly by myself.

So, I have sort of a wistful feeling about these malls, much as that Roger had for his Sears store. I was sad to learn that one mall (so far) that I went to has been torn down, and at least one other one has been converted to other uses. But, then, I wouldn’t recognise any of the places where the malls are or were—the area around them has changed, too.

Here in New Zealand, the malls are ticking along, though one that I went to near our previous house seems to be struggling a bit, and the smaller mall where I did a lot of our grocery shopping, and still sometimes visit when I’m in the area for a meeting, has been struggling for years. I’m a bit nostalgic about those malls, too, though probably less so than about those ones of my youth.

Much as I enjoy the convenience of shopping online, I can’t imagine ever feeling nostalgic about an online store closing. Maybe I will be, because change is inevitable and our reaction to it not always predictable. By that time, though, shopping behaviour will probably have changed yet again.

The thing is, despite the twinge of nostalgic melancholia over the loss of once very familiar places, nothing has changed my memories of them. I couldn’t visit to the physical places again because the ones I knew are no longer there—if they still exist, they’ve changed. But, so have I, and experiencing them again would be very different. My memories, then, are probably better, and certainly a surer bet, than the actual places.

And I think that’s just fine.

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