RogerBW's Blog

The Suicide of Retail (and Journalism) 16 November 2019

It is a truism that retail shopping is dying – and another that journalism is also dying. In both cases, the Internet is blamed. But I think it's worth looking a little deeper than that.

I remember what retail was all too often like before Internet shopping came along to provide some competition: not just the inevitable limitations of local premises, but the utter complacency of retail businesses that knew there was no alternative. It's forgivable when your small shop doesn't have the slightly unusual thing I want in stock; it's rather less so when you don't know and don't care and certainly won't go to any trouble to find out whether any other branch might have it, or that you have no system whereby I could get it sent to the shop for late collection, or that when it turns out to have been wrongly described you force me to go through a multi-hour returns process.

This to my mind is the key thing that drove the success of Amazon, where mail-order businesses had been a relatively small part of the market before that: it's not that they could run cheaply by having large inaccessible warehouses and exploiting their staff, it's that returns were deliberately really easy. Not happy with it, and it's still reasonably saleable? No questions asked, no nonsense about "restocking fees", just a full refund minus at most the cost of postage (and if it's their error, or defective goods, not even that).

That's why my local high street is turning into restaurants as the actual shops go bust or move out, and the mall is full of high-margin low-setup phone shops where it's not selling clothes; it's because retail couldn't be bothered to do its job and serve the customer. The retailers I know that are prospering are the ones that put some trouble into getting good people who can give advice about what they sell, to help the customer navigate the huge selection of stuff now available.

Similarly, the Internet wasn't a primary news source in the 1990s, and the newspapers were competing mostly with each other (and with TV news, but they could claim that they had more in-depth coverage even if it was less immediately timely). But what did they do with this effective monopoly position? They got lazy. Every time I've read a story about an event of which I have first-hand knowledge, or on a technical subject about which I've known something, it's been got comprehensively wrong – not just desperate over-simplification, but errors of fact proudly proclaimed as the truth. More than that, they would increasingly just take a press release that was generally in keeping with their political position, re-write it to add spelling mistakes, and publish it as if it were news. When an alternative came along that would give the in-depth reporting that the newspapers had mostly given up on, without (at that time) just recycling someone's company line, of course people were happy to jump to it; and, yes, also it was free. (But more importantly you didn't have to have a wodge of paper shoved through your door most of which you didn't want, and wouldn't ever read.)

If people had been happy with newspapers and retail shopping, they wouldn't have been quite as ready to abandon them for the first alternative that was prepared to do a bit better.


  1. Posted by Chris at 10:59am on 16 November 2019

    You were too late for retail. Supermarkets had killed it by the time you were old enough to go shopping.

    And I am not actually joking; as soon as the norm became people serving themselves, even in little corner shops, the incentive to serve them -- as opposed to making things available for them in a shop, and then taking their money -- was gone, and with it the need to know your stock. I am old enough to remember shops into which you went and someone came and helped you decide which of the things they had available you wanted to buy, rather than just pointing you at the rails or shelves and leaving you to it. There were shops in which (gasp) you were measured for clothes rather than just expected to know you were a size twelve and try things on at hazard because the manufacturers' sizings are all different. Shops in which you asked about the cheese and the assistant (knowing what you'd bought before) suggested that the stronger cheddar was good this week but he didn't think you'd like the Stilton today, or they were expecting a red Leicester on Thursday. Shops in which they had read the books and could give you some idea whether this one would be suitable for a Christmas present for an aunt. And we didn't actually miss choices we had never had, because you don't: choice is vastly over-rated when it is a choice between mediocre and mediocre, with no excellence anywhere. And if you want excellence you go to a place where they do serve you, even today, and you pay for the wages of the person who knows what is in their shop and takes trouble serving you.

    Newspapers were writing inaccurate bollocks on every subject (even investigative reporting, where you'd think they'd get it right) long before you were born, and come to that before I was. Fiction written in the thirties makes it clear that you could not trust what you read in the papers -- no, not even the Good Old Thunderer! "It must be true: I read it in the Daily Mail" was a sick joke in 1937, and what was it that I remember reading somewhere about an American newspaper owner being instrumental in starting a war to boost his paper's circulation, using judicious lies as his tools in the matter? Hearst, I think his name was, and that was before my parents were born, back in the nineteenth century.

  2. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:22pm on 16 November 2019

    There's stuff I've just stopped trying to buy in real shops. Like the vital fishtank stuff (bacteria, ammonium remover, filter foam, etc). I was going on a 50 to 60 minute round trip to get it from the pet superstore. But I kept getting there and discovering they were out of stock. The staff were lovely and helpful, but could only say things like "There will be a delivery next Thursday - we might get some in then". Next Thursday... still no filters/bacteria/chemicals.

    Stock control should be a piece of cake with barcodes and data collected on what's sold at the till.

    I've also trudged round 3 hardware stores looking for something that wasn't terribly weird or unusual, only to find they didn't stock it or it had run out.

    Some of the online clothing retailers seem quite happy with people who order a dress in 3 sizes, try them all on at home and send back the two that didn't fit. And there was a radio prog about an online service which rented posh frocks and designer dresses, and another which rented interview clothes. Someone spotted a gap in the market!

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 12:29pm on 16 November 2019

    There's a separate economic consideration there, and I think it's most clearly expressed in shoes.

    When the only option for shoes that won't fall apart is hand-made, there's room for cheap hand-made shoes, which aren't great but will provide enough ongoing business to keep a cobbler solvent in between the occasional commissions for really good shoes.

    When you can buy plastic from China that is nearly as good as cheap hand-made but much less expensive, almost everyone does, so most cobblers go out of business and really good shoes become much more expensive because each pair has to feed the cobbler until the next commission comes in.

    Shop staff became much more expensive over the 20th century, particularly staff who could do more than basic "I don't know if we have that" and taking the money.

    I'm not saying that poor service is the sole cause of the demise of retail, but my main point is that the internet isn't either.

    While Hearst certainly whipped up anti-Spanish sentiment in the run-up to the Spanish-American War, the modern historical viewpoint doesn't accept that it wouldn't have happened without him. He can on the other hand certainly be blamed for the making illegal of marijuana, throwing a great deal of weight behind the poor terrified fool Harry Anslinger, because cheap hemp paper would have cut into his profits from forests suitable for papermaking.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 12:31pm on 16 November 2019

    Dr Bob - particularly if you're the sort of person who will only be seen once in a particular designer dress anyway!

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