With so much recent attention to the current liquidation of Toys R Us, much has been said about how the world has changed, and how the beloved brick-and-mortar retail stores of the past simply can’t compete with the likes of Amazon.
There is truth to this, although the impending demise of Toys R Us has more to do with the evils of leveraged buyouts than any real market forces (and there is nothing new to report on that front–bids for parts of the retail chain, which could possibly see some US stores reopen under a new owner are due today, but any winners won’t be revealed until mid-April).
All this talk did get me thinking about why the world of retail has changed so dramatically. The simple answer is that mom-and-pop stores couldn’t compete with the buying power of the big-box stores, and now the big-box stores can’t compete with the convenience of online retailers.
That’s true to a point, but it glosses over the underlying factors.
Why couldn’t mom-and-pop stores compete with big-box retailers? It all comes down to the priorities of the consumer. Consumers want several things from a retailer: convenience, selection, service and the best possible price. Note that I did not list those in order of importance.
Consumers demonstrated that they are willing to forego convenience and service in order to have a larger selection and lower prices.
People bemoan the loss of personalized service that used to be available from the old-time mom-and-pop grocery stores. Much of that has been romanticized with the passage of time. Folks have a nostalgic desire for a thing that never really existed.
Many mom-and-pop grocers had ridiculously high prices, poor selection, and while they might be located within easy walking distance from your house, you’d be hard-pressed to find exactly what you want there. On top of that, much of the time mom and/or pop was downright surly and could be thoroughly unpleasant to be around.
When major retailers like Walmart began to expand nationwide it was no contest. Sure, you had to drive a little farther, but you had a much better selection and much lower prices, so eventually you didn’t even bother slowing down as you sped past the old mom-and-pop retailer.
I live in Dunbar. I have my entire life. When I was a kid there were small grocery stores all over town. These were the small precursors to what eventually became convenience stores. Eventually, as chains like Go Mart expanded into town and offered gas in addition to bread, milk and butter, these little stores dried up and faded away. It’s nice to think about how wonderful and colorful these little stores were, but the harsh truth is that they were pretty awful nasty places, where the store owner would mark out expiration dates and you were playing botulism roulette if you ever bought any meat there. On top of that, the prices were sky-high.
I’m not saying that all mom-and-pop retailers were like that, but enough were that the opportunity to go to a nice, big, clean mega-mart that had a vast selection and everyday low prices was tremendously appealing to vast amounts of people.
This has happened with toy stores, book stores and other specialty retailers. Not every independent book store was as wonderful as Taylor Books still is. Many had miniscule selections and high prices and couldn’t be bothered to special order anything for a customer. Those stores fell by the wayside as soon as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton came to town, and when those chains mutated into Borders and Barnes & Noble, they eventually fell to the combined might of Amazon and mismanagement following their own leveraged buyouts. (Barnes & Noble is still with us, but they’re not doing so hot these days)
Likewise, Toys R Us began making near-fatal mistakes almost a quarter-century ago. When Charles Lazurus, their founder, retired in 1994, the new management team decided to slash the amount of product that they carried by 60%. That led to a sales slump that made them ripe for a leveraged buyout (by some of the same folks who bled KayBee Toys dry, no less) and that brought them to their current state of liquidation.
Before that, Toys R Us, KayBee Toys and Children’s Palace combined to wipe out a goodly number of independently-owned toy stores nationwide.
The smaller, local stores may have had much better service, but they could never hope to compete on selection or price.
That brings us to today, when Walmart is hurting, Sears and K Mart are on life support, and other major retail chains are dropping like flies. The simple answer is that they can’t compete with online retailers. The question brought about by that answer is “why?”
For an answer to that question, I refer back to a famous quote, somewhat mangled in translation, but appropriate here in its mangled form. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit,” the thought that popped into my head as I ventured forth last Sunday into not one, but two liquidating Toys R Us stores while suffering from severe seasonal allergies: “Hell is other people.”
It’s not the same exact meaning as Sartre intended, taken out of the context of his play about the afterlife, but it made for the perfect slogan for a day when I really didn’t feel like going out, but made myself leave the house, and then came to regret that decision.
When I shop at Amazon, I don’t have some lumbering oaf stand directly in front of what I’m trying to see, oblivious to my polite interjections of “excuse me” and apparently so intent on never moving that I swear I think they had their mail rerouted. I don’t have people jumping in front of me and ripping things out of my hand, only to toss them aside when they see that it wasn’t something they want.
When I shop online, I don’t have to fight my way to find what I’m looking for, only to have some slack-jawed bespeckled person unleash some Lovecraftian behemoth of a flatulant outburst so strong that I have to make the choice between retreat or barfing.
There are no screaming children being screamed at by their screaming parents when I’m shopping online. I don’t get bruises on my shins from excitable idiots shoving their carts in directions at which their eyes are not pointed.
I try to be a hopeful person. I try to be optimistic and love my fellow man and be a nice person and all that upbeat, happy stuff. But lately, when I have to go shopping in a crowded store, I come away imagining how wonderful it would be if a sudden plague laid waste to humanity.
I don’t like feeling like that. Expecially when the liquidation discount was just ten percent, and most of the stuff in the store cost more than it did before the sale began.
I came away with an understanding about why brick-and-mortar retail is in such peril. I can see why we may soon be living in a world where you won’t be able to run to a mall or a crowded store, and instead will just have to order everything online.
It’s called progress. In this case, progress will bring us even lower prices and better selection, added to the convenience of home delivery. As a bonus, you’ll be able to shop without wanting to kill everyone in the world.
That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Keep checking back for all our regular features.