Dying Models, Growing Pains :A Journey Into the American Retail Underbelly by Gabriel Lundeen Assignment #2 - A Crash Course

In Creativity November I, 2012

My first stop on this journey into the American Retail Underbelly (and yes, that is an official organization secretly masterminding every move made in US commerce) was the venerable electronics store of my youth: Radio Shack. Technology has changed a lot since the 1980's, and Radio Shack has been forced to adapt. From the looks of things, it's been a clunky transition. Radio Shack, once a DIY haven for anyone with a little know-how and a lot of imagination, appears to have devolved into a terrible combination of big-box electronics store (Best Buy,The Artist Formerly Known as Circuit City), cell phone kiosk and an uncool, fad-chasing uncle.

It takes a lot more than a truncated, slightly hipper sounding name to change your store's public perception. Plus, "The Shack" might not be the most inspiring nickname. It

only serves to remind me that I'm in a cramped, narrow-ish room full of gadgets I don't need, cell phone contracts I do not wish to sign, and overpriced laptops bloated with

crapware. In fact, everything at The Shack can be had for cheaper without looking too hard online. This is a store for people who only go online because they have to, notbecause they love technology. This store is the sound of your technophobic aunt kicking and screaming her way toward an Android phone she'll pay far too much for.

The space itself is completely uninspired. Rows and rows of merchandise adorned with price tags, melting into an endless sea of boxes, labels and packaging (too much in most cases - the amount of cardboard it can take to enclose a very thin iPhone case is astounding). You have to know what you're looking for before you walk in, or you will immediately get lost and require the help of the terse, likely unknowledgeable staff. If past experiences are any indication, today's crew would not offer much help with a complicated technical question that did not involve selling me a more expensive HDMI cable. Radio Shack staff, once your local hackers and DIY engineering students building R2D2 replicas in their garages, have largely devolved into interchangeable retail warm bodies hired more

for their pulse than their expertise. It's been nearly two decades since one could remotely construe Radio Shack as the center of the tech universe, and it shows. The staff at this Radio Shack were very friendly and left me alone when I told them I was just looking around, and were mostly busy with activities behind the counter.

The lighting is harsh and severe, the same lighting used in every depressing corporate office known to man. No steps have been taken to welcome the customer, unless you find aggressive sales pitches via insincere marketing materials.

In fact, the customer walking in to The Shack finds himself besieged with sales pitches. The only reason I can think of to shop here is an emergency.The experience is mediocre at best, offensive at worst.

This picture best represents Radio Shack in 2012: garish, overpriced and flimsy. On the bright side, they did carry Arduino kits, which shows they're not completely out of the DIY game. I sincerely hope Radio Shack is still a resource when I need parts for my hypothetical future 3D printer, but I have my doubts. They seem a lot more interested in selling me a flatscreen TV and a Blackberry. I only entered the store for the purposes of this experiment, and because it's across the street from my work. In all likelihood, I will not be repeating the experience.

My next stop was Radio Shack's neighbor, Freedom Furniture

and Electronics, a store offering "easy financing without credit checks".

Everyone qualifies...yes, even you! All you need is a job, a pulse and a willingness to pay high interest rates on the living room set of your dreams. Columbus, GA has a large military population, thanks to its close proximity to Fort Benning. Freedom is clearly looking to market to military customers. I'd argue they're exploiting our brave soldiers, but I'll avoid the economic arguments against financing overpriced furniture and electronics that will be outdated long before one finishes paying for them on the installment plan. Suffice to say, there are many. I'm not a fan of seeing working class people exploited, so I walked in with a bit of an attitude.

As for the store itself, it's a wide-open space, full of couches, beds, easy chairs and other assorted furniture set up in room-like demonstrations. One can walk from station to station and see what certain furniture might be like in a room, but you're never far away from another piece of merchandise. Like Radio Shack, Freedom feels a bit claustrophobic, packed to the gills. I wasn't sure what to look at. There were easy pathways to view everything in the store, but the effect was akin to seeing everything and nothing all at once. Awash in furniture, I was unable to focus on any one individual item. The moment the door opened, I was approached by two salespeople. I eventually ended up talking to a very nice pregnant woman, who asked me if I was looking for anything in particular, and then proceeded to tell me how easy it would be to finance the living room set of my dreams, as long as I have a job and make over a certain amount per month. I told her I was just looking, and felt slightly bad at how hard she was trying to engage me.

I was the only person in the store. The store appeared like it had been empty all day, as staff seemed very relaxed and chatty with each other as I entered, like they had plenty

of down time. By the time I made it about 15 feet into the store, my pregnant friend was in my face and eager to talk. This was not a store which encourages idle browsing. After 5 minutes, I was approached by a different salesperson, who saw me already talking to his colleague and knew I had already been helped. This aggressive approach caused me to retreat. I would not find myself sleeping in any of these beds that night, but I would get to leave with my financial freedom intact (as intact as it gets, anyway - let's not discuss my student loan balances).

Next to these 2 stores was Blockbuster Video. Having been to more than one "going out of business" sales at Blockbusters in the last few years, I was somewhat surprised to see this one open for business. Blockbuster may have lost the war to Netflix, but they appear to still be valiantly fighting. I used to be a big DVD collector, and still own copies of many of my favorite films, but it's been at least two years since I last purchased a DVD. Cheap streaming media and a crosscountry move caused me to stop buying them. While I am a lifelong lover of movies and have written screenplays and taken numerous film classes over the years, entering a Blockbuster in 2012 holds a slightly bittersweet feel, a relic of a time not yet past but soon on its way out.

Lighting in Blockbuster was greatly helped by large windows, which gave this store a comparatively warmer and more friendly feel than the previous two.

The music of explosive movie trailers on multiple televisions created a cacaphony of sound, depending on where a customer stands. Stick to a side and you'll be able to hear clearly. Browse a middle shelf and you get an unintentional double feature.

If you need a video store, one could do worse than Blockbuster. One might not have a lot of options, in fact, as most independent video stores have long gone out of business in most parts of the US. Their selection remains very mainstream, with miniscule foreign, independent or esoteric movies that your indie store of the past might have carried. If nothing else, Blockbuster can always be counted on for its selection of B movies and terrible cinema. If Blockbuster ever goes out of business, how will America satiate its thirst for Stephen Dorff, celebrity sex tape comedies and Nora Roberts adaptations? Blockbuster appears to be doing its best, but it feels like a store out of time.

Even moreso than The Shack, I was hit with a feeling of nostalgia, for a time when entering a store like this would have made me feel like a literal kid in a candy store. I'm glad Blockbuster exists, but with so many competitors in its space, I saw nothing the store did particularly well or uniquely. Like Radio Shack, everything Blockbuster sells or rents can be had elsewhere, in a more convenient package, and in many cases cheaper. Because every movie is not available digitally and media companies so tightly control digital rights management on many purchased downloads, I desperately want a physical space for movies to exist. Despite my best wishes, however, it does not seem long for this life. My more cynical adult self left the store with this thought: Radio Shack and Blockbuster should merge into massive RadioBuster stores once Best Buy goes out of business and see if they can prolong their collective lives a bit longer.

For now, I'll sleep a little better tonight knowing they have plenty of copies of The Debt

(and everything else, for that matter) available for rent. Selection for every new release was very good, which may not bode well for their business.

Next stop, Barnes and Noble! As a book lover, it's always a treat to visit my local bookstore. The publishing landscape is in great flux right now, and B&N has struggled to find its footing in an age of ebooks and Amazon. However, they appear to be looking toward the future. This is the first thing one sees upon entering a Barnes and Noble:

The Nook figures prominently into their business strategy, as they seem to recognize that people's reading habits are changing. In the foreground of that picture, notice the table stacked with "Elf on the Shelf" games. B&N has devoted an increasing amount of space to non-book merchandise. Gifts, games, trinkets, toys, journals, fountain pens, notepads, laptop desks, bookends and tote bags often carry a better profit margin than books, so this is not surprising. They emphasize "Gifts For Readers," recognizing that many people are seeking the bookstore experience while not necessarily acquiring their books from said store any longer. While I understand the transition, it's a bit discouraging to see the "Candles and Scents" section is much larger than Poetry.

Unlike any of the previous stores I visited, Barnes and Noble invites and encourages lingering. Comfortable chairs scattered about the store, a cafe and a variety of different spaces allow one to sit down, grab a cup of coffee and read or work at one's own leisure. Many customers seemed like they had been there awhile, or intended to be. Free wi-fi, lots of reading material and caffeine make this an ideal place to linger. I was immediately reminded of all the hours I spent inside Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores while I was in graduate school, when stores like this were my second home and I knew their hours as well

as their staff.

Despite the marketing tactics on display, clearly designed to sell customers more than just books, the store still feels intimate. I have always loved the large classic book cover canvases on B&N walls. They offer a timeless feel, even if my more cynical self realizes this intimacy is only designed to sell me more James Patterson novels.

The Music, Video and DVD section was a complete ghost town. Its service desk was staffed by a friendly girl who smiled and made eye contact, but did not seem surprised when I told her I was just looking around and likely seemed extremely unlikely to buy anything. I was reminded of Borders, a now-defunct large bookstore that used to be B&N's primary competitor, and how a huge part of their failed business model involved devoting too much space to physical media that had entered the digital sphere and no longer held its previous allure to customers. I hope B&N realize this before it's too late, and based on the size of this area compared to years past, they appear to.

The new Bob Dylan album, Tempest, played over the speakers, which won points with me as a huge Dylan fan. I purchased a book for my wife's birthday, got 20% off thanks to a coupon received in my email and had a very pleasant experience. It was a welcome respite from Radio Shack and Blockbuster, dying businesses facing similar challenges as Barnes and Noble that seem more content to trot out old, tired, exploitive marketing tactics and ineffectual merchandising instead of adapting to the environment around them. Still, it's not all roses for B&N.

Jack Shafer, in a recent Reuters article on the merger between major publishers Random House and Penguin, hits on some of the challenges in the environment B&N operates in, which will deeply impact their business in the years to come. The Penguin-Random House merger would theoretically give the new company more leverage in the pricing fights with Amazon et. al. But as important as that struggle for control might be, it still leaves Penguin-Random House operating in a moribund and hidebound enterprise that looks and acts like something out of the 18th century. Book publishers are playing against a stacked deck. They don’t own the distribution channels, they don’t own the stores, they don’t control any proprietary technologies or patents, they’re terrible at inventing new products, and the market value of their brands is dwindling. Plus, their most valuable properties, their writers, are free agents who don’t really belong to them.

Personally, I am rooting for them to succeed.

This merger—and other book industry consolidation to come—is less about winning than it is losing more slowly.

Next stop, neighboring Toys R Us! I used to love this store as a kid, and I still love it as an adult. I have new reasons to be back in a Toys R Us, thanks to this little guy, my 8 month old son Henry:

(No, I'm not at all trying to distract you with a picture of a cute child? What ever gave you that idea?)

I entered this massive emporium of toys and kid stuff intending to buy Henry his first toy truck. He enjoyed playing with a big dump truck at his doctor's office a few days prior, so I wanted to get him one of his very own. I found every other type of truck except the one I was looking for. Radio controlled trucks with turbo shocks and tons of small moving parts were easy to find, but a basic plastic dump truck eluded me.

Toys R Us is clearly trying to compete on sheer volume. Merchandise is stacked high, packed tight. Every inch of space has some kind of display. If they thought they could get away with eliminating walkways, I'm pretty sure they'd have customer trampling over piles of "As Seen on TV" junk. Color is not at a shortage here - it's almost an assault on the senses. Is this place designed to besiege children and demand they make their parents buy something? Is this why I always went bonkers for this store when I was a child?

I asked a staff member who was wandering around, and she pointed me to the area I had previously

checked and come up empty. I'm glad she found me, because I was starting to get a little lost and don't know if I would have sought out someone on my own, or even found them had I tried. She did her best, but I left empty-handed.

On its front windows, Toys R Us has the following:

Translation: "please don't buy your toys online! Please get lost in our labyrinthine shelves! Please buy something you didn't come in here for!"

Though it could be a much better experience, I hope Toys R Us exists long enough for my son to experience the love/hate relationship I have with Geoffrey the Giraffe's esteemed institution. Too much of a good thing? I think not, based on my love of play and childlike tendencies, yet my sense of efficiency and organization made me want to run screaming.

My final stop was not a retail store at all, but my place of work: a public library, where I am Deputy Director.

I know that a public library is not a store, but let me explain. The experience of checking out books, music, audio books or movies at the library is not that different from selecting something at a retail store and purchasing it. Your library card acts as cash, and the obligation to return what you borrowed looms, but the act and impulse have much in common. In my quest to understand the public's behavior and better, I've seen firsthand that checking out items from the public library acts as "retail therapy" for a lot of people.

The Library is a beautiful building, but it was built more for beauty than practicality. It's a wonderful 19th Century library trapped in a 21st Century world, an echoing cathedral

that's not always terribly functional. The building is the largest in our library system, and fulfills many purposes. Public libraries are the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, serving all walks of society. One of the industry's struggles involves not becoming all things to all people, because it is an exercise in futility and budget impossibility to try to satisfy everyone's desires.

Behold the blessing and curse of a gorgeous rotunda in the center of a 3-story building: beautiful but noisy. Every footstep and hushed conversation still echoes in this space.

The Library encourages lingering, of course. Plenty of comfortable seating near windows always helps. Seating like this is scattered all over the library, along with tables, study spaces and nooks.

A lot of space is still devoted to books. This will likely change in the future, and some academic libraries have even largely abandoned their physical collections altogether, opting for more tech-oriented spaces. I love that the public library combines the best of both worlds, offering technology as well as physical materials. The library of the future, however, will be less about being a warehouse of books and more about being a space for people. Libraries are in transition just like the world around us.

The only line I encountered in my retail travels: this one, for early voting. Every once in awhile, democracy wins over commerce. Not often, but it has been known to happen...

My visits highlighted the challenges of competing with online world, creating an experience for the shopper, making it a positive experience rather than a chore, because it's too easy to shop online and replace the in-person visit and effectively become either a ghost town superseded by technology (Blockbuster) or an Amazon showroom (Radio Shack). The busiest spaces I visited were centers of information. Places of experience as much as commerce, Barnes and Noble and the Public Library transcended what they sold to offer a space. If the crowds I witnessed on random weekday afternoons are any indication, expectations and desires for retail are changing, and it's more about the space you provide for people than what's sold in it. The spaces provided may have a greater effect on the products sold than even the products themselves.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.