As conventional wisdom would have it, the offline, sidewalk-bound, bricks-and-mortar retailer is toast these days. The Web merchants are going to roll a tank over any mom-and-pop shop in their way--and if the Web can't finish these folks off, the big-box superstores will. Right?
The American Booksellers Association, the trade lobby for independently owned bookstores, has seen a long, calamitous decline in its membership--from 5,200 in 1991 to 3,300 this summer. In a marketplace where the square footage devoted to bookstore retail has tripled while the number of books sold hasn't increased nearly as much, small shopkeepers have gotten pounded. But over the past few months, membership didn't sink further, instead inching upward by a handful.
"In the long run, [the numbers] may not turn out to be anything we'll hang our hats on," cautioned Oren Teicher, the association's chief operating officer. But he is guardedly optimistic about the future for independent bookstores: "The worst is over. Those stores that have managed to survive have found their niche and have figured out how to compete."
One of these niches can be convenience--the same selling point of the big Web sites. For instance, there are three possible ways I can buy a book these days:
* If I purchase at Amazon.com, I will probably save a few bucks on the book itself. But then I'll have to pay for delivery, wait for the book to arrive--and hope that I don't have to return it and eat the shipping costs.
* I can get in my car and drive to the nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble--about 10 minutes' drive either way, more if there's traffic--pick up what I need, then drive home. Since my car is not free to operate, my "delivery" costs will run about $2.
* I can walk three blocks to the Olsson's Books and Music store near my apartment, possibly pay a little more for the book or CD (depending on whether I can cash in a frequent-buyer rebate) and just go home with it. Delivery costs and shipping time are near zero.
Speaking for myself, the first two options are about equally attractive: Either way, I can usually count on finding what I want at some sort of discount. Given that choice, I'd shop online--why waste time finding parking? But since option three is available to me, that's what I've done for the past two holiday seasons. (Since I am chronically inept at shopping ahead of time, this has also been cheaper than paying for second-day-air shipping on my Web purchases.)
Put another way, convenience is convenience--whether it's avoiding the Leesburg Pike or not having to wait for a delivery.
Some local retailers have found that enough customers seem to be thinking along these lines. John Olsson, owner of the Olsson's chain, acknowledged that Internet competition has hurt but said, "We're still alive and kicking." In the past year, his company opened its seventh store.
Similarly, Barbara Meade, co-owner of Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue NW, indicated that this year's "eChristmas" buzz hadn't slowed her store down: "As far as our sales increases, we're much stronger than last year."
Both owners pointed to attributes of their stores that set them apart from competitors. Olsson noted that his shops are often within walking distance of customers: "We try to be convenient to people. . . . We hope that you'll forget to get on Amazon and you'll drop by the store ."
Meade, meanwhile, cited her staff's knowledge and her store's focus on being a place that people enjoy being in. "We have people who are tremendously knowledgeable, they are enthusiastic about their jobs, they like what they do, they like working here," she said.
There's also a third factor--call it guilt or loyalty, as you wish. Meade prefers the latter term: "We get the consumer who's exercising a lot of discretion about where they want to spend their consumer dollars, and we appreciate that." True enough: I do make a point of shopping at the places that are convenient to me and that I enjoy visiting. I don't usually feel that way about a store in the middle of a parking lot somewhere.
For the same reason, I'm not going to waste my time shopping for movies on VHS or DVD this year. There are no interesting stores nearby, and I don't feel like driving from mall to mall to find all the movies that I'm looking for. I'd rather get my shopping done with online. Again, convenience is convenience.
Similarly, if I can't find, for instance, the CD I want in my neighborhood, I'll go online. One of these online alternatives, though, could be yet another local company--Vinyl Ink Records, a Silver Spring-based music store whose history is the reverse of the usual neighborhood-store-squashed-by-the-Web dogma. Local competitors were taking business away and its location was holding it back, so its owners shuttered the shop and moved to online-only sales.
Explained George Gelestino, an owner of the store: "Before there was Amazon.com and Best Buy . . . there was Go! compact discs." That small Arlington shop eventually went out of business itself, but Vinyl Ink's location had also become a liability. "Developers in Silver Spring painted this dismal picture of a dying town and the media ate it up," he said.
Gelestino said his store never saw enough community support, so it was off to the Web for him. It would be nice to think that the Web will put the big-box stores out of business but leave room for the mom-and-pop shops, but he warns: "Not everybody cares or can afford to care about what is good for them and their community. All they see is the bottom line and if they can save a buck by shopping online, for whatever reason, they'll shop online."
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