“I have become death.”
One of my earliest jobs was at an independent used records store. You know, like the one you have in your town? The place where all the kids hang out to talk about music, trade tapes, and whisper rumors about possible reunions and side projects? Oh, wait…
A few vestigial record stores are still lumbering around out there, but the halcyon days I remember from my youth are gone forever. Websites such as Myspace, Twitter, Pandora, and Last.FM do a much better job of introducing people to new music than any single record store clerk ever could, and the record labels pray every night that people will go back to trading home-made tapes with their small circle of friends instead of the current method, which involves entire albums being widely disseminated over Internet file sharing services — often in advance of the “official” release.
I also spent five years managing a chain video rental store. I witnessed firsthand the surprisingly rapid format change from VHS to DVD. I was on the front lines, educating consumers about progressive vs. interlaced video, widescreen vs. fullscreen, pan and scan vs. open matte, and so on. I also witnessed more and more customers abandoning their weekly video store habit in favor of online rental services like Netflix. The glacially slow response of the video stores to competition represented by Netflix was embarrassing to me as a retailer in the industry. (Trivia: Blockbuster Video was given an opportunity to buy Netflix prior to its explosion in popularity; they passed.) Now both major players in the video rental space are on deathwatch, and barring a miracle it’ll be grocery stores, self-service kiosks, video-on-demand through cable and satellite providers, and various Internet delivery methods that’ll be dividing up the home video pie.
I think it is my firsthand experiences working in the twilight of both the brick-and-mortar video store and the record store that has me so pessimistic about the future of other retailers whose industries I’ve worked in. I worked at a bookstore for several years, and I’m an avid reader. The iPod may be the biggest factor in the decline of the record store; can the Kindle (or a similar device) do the same thing to book stores? Before you say no, consider that the Kindle is in its early days. Not only will the Kindle continue to improve, but eBook readers from competing manufacturers will build on what the Kindle has accomplished and bring prices down while pushing quality up. I have two hundred books on my iPod Touch at the moment, and the convenience factor of being able to read a chapter or two of my current read whenever I have a spare moment means I am getting a lot more reading done. Not even a mass-market sized paperback book is as convenient to carry around as an iPod.
I can easily see rapid adoption of eBooks and readers among students. Once young readers are used to digital delivery, is it so crazy to say that there will be generation who looks at buying a physical product from a bookstore to be as alien and strange as the current young generation looks at buying music on CD?
eBooks are small files, so even the pathetic state of the online infrastructure in the US isn’t a challenge. The only real hold-up is the expense and relative clunkiness of the devices: something you could have easily said about the state of portable media players before the iPod.
The last retail industry I’ve worked in is the much-maligned video game store. This industry has the opposite challenge to a digitally distributed future as that which faces booksellers: where books files small and it’s only the devices themselves holding back large-scale adoption of digital distribution for the medium, with video games the product is intrinsically digital — and whether the files are read from an optical disk, a cartridge, a hard drive or from flash memory makes no difference to the playback device. I have my doubts as to the abilities of American Internet service providers to ever get their act together and be able to provide the consistent high-quality bandwidth to enough of the nation to make downloading a game was large as the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII something convenient enough for video game players to give up their packaged products.
However, if bandwidth does manage to outpace game file sizes enough that buying a Blu-ray sized game via digital distribution is more convenient than driving to a store, I’ll have to find a new day job. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened to me.