Retail grim reaper

“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.

10 thoughts on “Retail grim reaper

  1. I enjoy having physical media. I want the CD in my hand, and want to feel the pages of the book, I want see the insert artwork in my PSP game, etc. I don’t recall ever buying an entire album from iTunes – although one-off singles I purchase from time to time; I find the idea of the Kindle or even reading books on an iPod fairly appalling.

    Yes, I’m content to be old and crotchety.

    Personally, not having a book or magazine, or a CD, or a DVD, make the media itself seem more…ethereal, and that, in an odd way, makes it seem disposable. I don’t care for that. I take time when purchasing media; they are not things to do by thrown away or deleted without substantial reason. It’s bogus, but physical media makes it feel as if those things are more permanent.

    And now I’m rambling. In any case…digitial distribution. *hiss hiss, spit spit*

  2. The adoption of ebooks has been pretty successful in Korea, but mostly cause everyone there ‘pirates’ their books, especially students with student textbooks. As neat as ebooks are of a concept, I can’t stand reading a computer monitor or a flimsy tablet. I need paper in my hands, and I don’t think that is going to change for the majority of those who read books (i.e. old people) or even for students, who like being able to take notes in their textbooks.

  3. The Kindle/ebook event has great potential for a young academic like me; many universities and presses put up most, or all, of a book online, stuff that isn’t cutting edge but definitely out-of-print or too expensive to purchase used. Right now, price wise, Kindle offers no advantage for me price wise over just buying the original book; I suppose it’s different for someone who reads more paperbacks and things that, you know, the general public will actually read. I’m all for the digitization of books; problem, though, computer screens hurt my eyes after the extended time it takes to read anything longish (good for articles, essays and short chapters), whereas books do not, and frankly the entire experience is substantially different: the computer screen makes me antsy, energetic and lose concentration, whereas a paper book hones my mind. The ebook I use from necessity, not from convenience. Not a good argument against it, and hopefully there will be room for both to coexist (especially because books don’t require tech support har har sigh) rather then have one destroy the other.

    As for book and video stores, less pessimistic than you, at least when it comes to smaller, independent stores. The big chains are hamstrung by a marketing model that stresses ‘big is better’ and ‘safest lowest common denominator’; I know from working in the acquisitions sections of Chapters Indigo for a few years, and it seems as if the model of the small stores here in my town works better: be broader with what you have available, especially the movie store that has a large selection of older movies, classics and foreign, actually brings people in. It’s a sad day when the only place I could rent ‘2001’ was in the small independent video store.

  4. Physical vs. digital is a mixed bag for me; without digital, we might not have gotten stuff like Bionic Commando Rearmed, Pac-Man Championship Edition, Galaga Legions, or Mega Man 9. So if it continues to bring me good games I would not have gotten at retail, I’m good.

    But for bigger stuff, i.e. the Blu-ray-sized discs and whatnot, I’m cool with having physical product. Physical product isn’t quite as good now as it once was (such as awesome instruction booklets), but it’s still nice.

  5. I can definitely see some of the advantages of digital distribution. I love my Netflix account and enjoy downloading PSN and WiiWare games (and would likely download 360 stuff as well if I had one.) I still think digital distribution has a long way to go.

    Most digitally distributed movies are lacking options. For example Netflix streaming currently lacks any options for subtitles or alternative audio tracks. iTunes is great for the occasional single track, but there are times when a physical album costs less than purchasing its digital counterpart. Not to mention you lose things like liner notes/lyrics. Although admittedly there are a number of CDs lacking these as well. (At the very least I think every CD booklet should have the lyrics of the songs, but that is another unrelated issue)

    As far as books are concerned, I’m reminded of this Penny Arcade strip: As a teacher, I can definitely see some advantages of a digital textbook. Although I do not believe that an iPod would be of adequate size for most science/math textbooks since lots of information and diagrams often need to be shown in detail. Occasionally it is also beneficial to show two pages side by side, but I don’t believe that the current size/resolution of eReaders are there yet. Intelligent use of hyperlinks in a textbook however could be a major selling point, but again it depends on the publisher doing more with them than simple PDFs. The pricing would also need to be altered since textbooks are already ridiculously overpriced, and one loses the ability to resell a digital copy (an important part when it comes to the pricing of digital games as well.)

  6. If all products become digital, Christmas will suck. Can’t unwrap no digital downloads!

  7. With the exception of books, virtually everything I buy is entirely digital. Virtually; I still buy physical product if I want it that much. Plus, I think this very site has proven the continuing viability of hard copy, particularly print, in the face of digital distribution.

    I guess there’s a case to be made that because digital distribution cuts out most of the production costs, and therefore profit sources, it’s easier to assess a given media’s aesthetic and artistic value, and therefore its price.

  8. Video Games is the one case where brick and mortar is truly the enemy (Gamestop, anyway). The used game thing is damn near profiting off piracy — this is precisely because games are a digital product, never intended to be resold. What’s more, bandwidth issues aside, games seem especially well-suited to digital distribution, given the gamer mentality and, as you mentioned, the fact that the storage device doesn’t affect the product.

    I must say that my favorite aspect of the current-gen consoles is the fact that I can sit on my coach and have media come to me. I don’t like changing discs. Changing discs sucks. If games were digital, I wouldn’t have to change discs.

  9. “The used game thing is damn near profiting off piracy — this is precisely because games are a digital product, never intended to be resold.”

    Games are a digital product, never intended to be sold. All games should be free! Selling games is akin to piracy!

    Seriously, now.

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