Have the retailer’s obsession with technology and profit left some of the smaller treasures forgotten?
I was in my neighborhood Barnes and Noble book today and was surprised to see yet another aisle of “Christian Inspiration”. Over the past six months, the selection of Christian literature has expanded from half an aisle on the side of the store to several aisles at the center of the store. Other religions and philosophy have been pushed to the sides. Current events is now sharing a reclusive space shared with gay and minority studies and anthropological material is now squeezed into the end of the history section which is gradually being squeezed to half an aisle by the expanding selection on military history.
This change of selection reflects the demographics of the area, which is predominately white, conservative and Christian. I recognize this being the result of something that we in my profession call business intelligence, which is a product of gathering information about your business such as sales and returns and processing that information so that sound decisions can be made from it. In the case of a bookstore, these decisions include what books to order and how to stock them. Increasing the selection and availability of the Christian inspirational material increases sales potential, while cutting down on anthropological studies decreases the cost of holding books that don’t sell.
On one hand this can be seen as a good thing, where most of the people get what they want and retail operations perform better. This practice is popular across the entire retail industry and affects everything from grocery stores to clothing stores. In fact Wal-Mart, which features a massive information technology center, pioneered something called JIT, “Just-In-Time” inventory. Which allows the actual re-stock of any particular item to be delayed until the just before the moment where the system predicts that the shelf will actually be empty.
But on the other hand I find it rather sad that retail operations are so obsessed with this direction. It’s not just the hard-to-sell items that are being cut out, but something else that goes along with it, the hard-to-find items. Taking a consumers perspective for a change, one will eventually realize that some people are looking for something different and this is something that doesn’t compute in profit obsessed robotics. Some retailers used to be able to subsidize some hard to sell items with the profits from the hot-selling items and sometimes they would even take pride in being the only store in town that carries a specific item or selection.
This situation is in itself was a treasure, usually more common in small business operations, that rely more upon being unique to secure a footing in the market, but most of these small businesses are being destroyed by the sheer size of the conglomerates and sheer size itself becomes the big factor for gaining market share. So back at the bookstore, which happens to be a branch of a huge corporate chain, and the only book store left standing in my neighborhood, the consumer landscape is looking more generic and less interesting. Of course they can still order any book you are looking for but I can do that on the internet. For me, the point of walking into a bookstore is to appreciate the tangible aspects book browsing and to walk out with a book in my hands and for me, the browsing is much better in bookstore with a wide variety of best sellers and obscurities.