The future of shopping

A real-life post, but it does relate to books, I promise.

Christmas has come and gone and this means we’re in the biggest shopping time of the year. Many shops survive on the rush to Christmas and then the post-Christmas sales. I don’t like shopping, but today I had reason to venture into our local shopping centre and it was… rather quiet. Retailers are reporting OK, but lacklustre sales.

The reason I ventured into the shops after buying vacuum cleaner bags was that it is high time to replace my bikini. When you use it a lot, even chlorine-resistant swimwear doesn’t last all that long. Two years tops. And since the last time I bought a bikini, something has changed. See, I’m not a frilly type of person, and I’m definitely not for a floral bathing suit. I want a sporty bikini that has a reasonable chance of staying in place when one gets dumped by a wave. Sand in unimaginable places is enough to deal with, thank you very much. I don’t need to worry about my bikini top as well.

And–here comes the weird thing–none of the shops had any non-frilly, non-flimsy, chlorine resistant swimwear, not even the sports store. Last time I bought a bikini, there was plenty of choice.

So when I got home, grumpy, I decided to look on the internet. Guess what? Lots of choice.

So, do we have a Borders moment here? Borders who used to stock loads of interesting books until the rot set in and they just stocked the most popular ones, and often not even those? And then they went bust.

The clothing stores have obviously worked out that people buy these things online, so they don’t even bother stocking. The retailers I found online–most of them local, and a fair number made their clothes locally–didn’t look like their wares were carried by any stores.

This is similar to what happens in book retailing. I bought a couple of books in a bookshop the other day. It’s worth mentioning because I haven’t bought anything in a physical bookshop for a long time. It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but that the books I wanted simply aren’t available in shops. Some perhaps could be ordered from publishers and distributors, but others–especially the specialist scientific books which were POD–probably not.

In any case, it would be much easier and cheaper for me to order the books myself through ABE. I strongly feel that the word “easier” is the operative here.

A lot of people have a quaint attachment to bookshops. They are cute and interesting places, and I wouldn’t really want them to disappear, but given the fact that they don’t often have what I want, what is the future for the bookshop? Or, for that matter, for the clothes stores, or non-fresh-food retail in general? We want more choice than local shops can provide, and we want it now. Some people advocate asking shops to order on their behalf, but that’s not a solution; that’s charity. And a pain in the butt besides.

I see retail diverging into two streams: high-volume popular items and specialist shops. The specialist shops will probably still do a lot of online trade and their shopfront will double as office. But that probably puts them under the line at which their income is going to pay the horrendous rent in shopping complexes, so the specialist shops will become backyard and warehouse-only operations.

The same with specialist clothing stores. They don’t need a shopfront.

So, does anyone need a shopfront, really? Anyone at all? Now there is a scary thought.

What about all these giant shopping complexes we’ve built over the past decades? When are we going to convert them into housing estates?

Or, will the shopping centre management lower the rents so that interesting shops can once again populate these palaces of materialism? Will we perhaps see specialist shopping centres?

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6 comments on “The future of shopping

  1. While I’m happy to buy books or furniture online (although going to ikea is kind of fun), I’m not sure I’d ever be happy buying clothes more complex than tshirts online. Especially not shoes, which I have a horrible enough time with when I can try them on. But, for example, just because jeans look nice in the picture, doesn’t mean they’ll sit right on. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to buy a bikini online unless it was exactly the same brand and size as the old set.

    • The generation of teenagers now growing up buy everything online. Most of the sites have pretty decent size charts are excellent return policies (although returns fail the easiness principle).

  2. Very astute I’d say… or at least, I agree. I can’t see the high street surviving as more than a niche or office, myself. There seems to be more stuff and less choice, unless you go on line. I’m a very tricky shape to dress which makes buying on line a nightmare but finding anything that is remotely wearable in the high street is a vanishing art…

    Maybe we’ll all end up with algorithms that match our books and clothes to us… pretty much what they try to do already, tracking our credit card usage, loyalty card points etc etc.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • I think that our shopping precincts will turn into entertainment centres, with movies, places to eat, go out and play, and shop, but not as a sole function. Shopping is a social activity so there will always be some, just not as much space will be devoted to it. I’m waiting for the first espresso book machine bookshop.

  3. You can’t beat internet shopping for ease, it’s true. On the other hand, I love going into a brick & mortar book store. (Have you read the article in this month’s Atlantic about Ann Patchett’s store?) But it’s like you say, my local B&N is filled with toys and puzzles and coffee mugs these days, like they’re not even trying. And the books they do have don’t make sense. Most of the new bestsellers were present, but other than that it looked like it had just been randomly stocked. They’d have the fourth book in a huge series but none of the others. Holly Black was completely absent from the shelves (and that’s a sad, sad thing). The paranormal romance section took up an unholy amount of their limited space because they’d put most of the books facing outward…

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