20 December 2011


Most of you reading this probably figure you know me well enough by now to know that I loathe Xmas. (See, I can't even bring myself to spell it out.) And you'd be right, mostly. But this year, rather than writing the usual screed about everything I find appalling about the season at hand, I'm going to write about the things I like this time of year. So much for predictability.

But that takes us to the first thing I like, which has to do with predictability - in this particular case the predictability of physics. Click on this paragraph to read one of the Leaders from this year's year-end double issue of The Economist. Then make sure to come back here to read the rest of my blog. (If you use Windows you can right click on the paragraph and open the article in another window. If you use a Mac there must be something you can do but I don't know what that is.)

I love the special year end double issue of The Economist. It is probably the one thing that I look most forward to reading every year. The Leader that you have just - hopefully - read, is a perfect example of why. It is beautifully written. It is clear and easy to understand. It is witty and entertaining and fascinating and makes plain some things that you have undoubtedly seen throughout the past year in headlines. The whole issue is full of articles like this, about a wide variety of subjects. I only wish it was bigger, or came out twice a year.

I love Xmas Day. Though truth be told I could do the same thing any day of the year. Which is - I get together with friends, we go eat dim sum in a gigantic noisy Chinese restaurant that is jam packed with people of a similar bent, then we go to a movie matinee - usually something blockbusterish - this year probably the new Mission Impossible movie. It's got the Burj Khalifa in it and the Kremlin blows up. What could be more festive than that?

Okay, so what else do I love about Xmas? I'm thinking, I'm thinking...

The best Xmas I ever spent was in Dakar, Senegal.

I spent December 24th wandering the town, admiring the occasional African Santa Claus I encountered and the rather odd mix of African and French decorations. I caught a pickpocket with his hand in my camera bag in the main street market. Though then I worried about him. He couldn't have been much more than 12 and when I grabbed his hand and held it in the air and yelled at him, I was joined by a bunch of angry market women who took over his chastisement from me. I don't know what happened to him after that. Maybe they just humiliated him and sent him home. Maybe they beat him to death.

But I digress. My friend and traveling companion Ronna and I had dinner at one of the swankest French colonial restaurants in town. I had the very best steak frites (with a fresh green peppercorn sauce) that I have ever had, and we shared a bottle of excellent wine.

Then we wandered down to the wrong side of the tracks where all the tourist guides tell you not to go. Actually, it was under the tracks - a very sleazy, big nightclub that was mostly an enormous colorfully lighted patio with a band set up at one end of it. It was riotous with all the people that well-intentioned "experts" warn you against hanging out with: hookers, their pimps, their best customers, a variety of gangsters and assorted other crooks and junkies and drunks.

We had a blast. The Ventilateur was the dance craze of the moment (1984) - a dance in which one turns one's ass to the rest of the crowd and spins and jiggles it as best one can in emulation of a fan. Ronna proved to be particularly adept at this. I can't recall if she was the only white girl in the place, but she was certainly the only one who could hold her own dancing.

We drank. We smoked. There may have been some hash laced into some of those cigarettes. We chatted with everyone, in English when possible, in our tortured French when we needed to. We got lessons in Wolof - the primary local language from which jazz idioms such as "heebie jeebies" and "hepcat" derive.

At dawn Xmas morning the whole place emptied out and everybody walked through the deserted streets of town down to the beach where we scrounged coffee and breakfast from the few vendors who were around and a cafe that was open.

It was even better than dim sum and a movie matinee.

10 December 2011


Progress isn't always pretty. It's got victims. Even when it tries to accommodate the past, sooner or later it's just going to steamroll over it in many instances. Today might be one of those days.

Today Amazon is running a promotion. Take your smartphone to a shop, any shop that sells something Amazon also sells, let the Amazon app on your phone know what product you're considering buying and up will spring the - almost certainly cheaper - Amazon price. And to further encourage you to do this, today you get a five percent discount (up to $5) when you buy the product from Amazon rather than from the store where you're doing your browsing.

Retail stores are furious. And rightly so. Amazon is forcing them to become its storefront and not compensating them for that. It is taking sales directly away from them in the most crass possible way. Already, bookstore owners frequently see shoppers writing down titles, that they are certain - with good reason - those people will go home and order from Amazon instead.

Is this the future? Is this a case of technology being used to the benefit of consumers, even though it is hurting traditional, small businesses? Or is it just another typical instance of a huge corporation ruthlessly trying to stomp on its competition?

It's both, I suppose. Therein lies the dilemma.

As a consumer, I like to buy things as inexpensively as possible. If one place is selling a book I want for $24.95 and the other is selling it for $15.95, I'm not rich enough to ignore the difference.

As an author, wanting to sell books to readers, if I can sell more books at a lower price, while still getting the same - or even higher in the case of my ebooks - royalty as at the higher price, I'm also not successful enough to turn away those additional sales. As a matter of fact, it's in my interest to encourage them.

But I also like shopping in real, brick and mortar stores. I like browsing through books on tables and shelves. I like sifting through clothes on racks and trying them on before buying them. I like feeling the heft of cookware before making up my mind what pot, pan, knife or gizmo I want to bring home. I like the social aspect of it - chatting with fellow shoppers, with the people who work in the store. In a good store, the knowledge and opinions of the shopkeepers is an important and valuable part of the experience of shopping. I end up buying less stuff that I want to return in brick and mortar stores than I do online.

And Amazon is threatening all those things that I enjoy as a shopper. Too many bookstores are closing down. Record stores are mostly all gone. What sort of shops are next on the hit list?

Am I, as a consumer, as much to blame for this as Amazon? I'm certainly an enabler. Hell, there are even specialty food items I buy online rather than from shops, even some fresh ones, yet I love going to food markets. Is my economic self-interest worth giving up much of what I do enjoy about shopping?

The sad fact is that other than for the currently infamous "one percent," economic self-interest will always trump the niceties of the marketplace or the "joys" of shopping. And it is always going to be cheaper for an online retailer to sell its products than for a brick and mortar store to sell the same products, even if the online stores are forced to charge sales tax - which I think they should be.

Does this mean the end of shops as we know them? For stores that try to compete with companies like Amazon on Amazon's own terms, yep, they're going to get crushed.

In the future, the brick and mortar shops that will survive are those that play up and enhance the type of shopping experience that they can provide and an online retailer can't. They need to find ways to make the higher prices they have no choice but to charge, worth the premium. It's not unlike how TV commercials need to become more and more entertaining and/or informative in order to encourage viewers to not simply bypass them on their DVRs.

Here's a few things that shops can do that Amazon can't, that might help them keep my/your business:
Foster a community. Turn your shop into a gathering place for people with like-minded interests. You can do that through events, promotions, contests, classes, film screenings, whatever. It's easier if you run a specialty shop - a mystery or cookbook or history store, rather than a general book store, for example. This is applicable to all kinds of stores, not just bookstores. (Though some of your shoppers are still going to browse in your place then buy elsewhere. There's no avoiding that.)
Provide a variety of things to lure customers in and keep them there. The most obvious are hybrids - cafe, bar or laundromat and bookstore, salad and sandwich shop and clothing store, etc. Use the revenue from one to help support the other.
Personal service from knowledgeable salespeople. Every successful brick and mortar shop may well need its equivalent of the Apple "Genius Bar."
Sell products that buyers need, or greatly want to feel and/or see in three dimensions, taste, smell or otherwise experience in person before buying. These are often specialty and high-end items or most fresh products.
I'm not a huge shopaholic, but I also don't want small, local stores to disappear. One of the things I love about the neighborhood I live in is the abundance of small, locally-owned shops selling a variety of products and the sense of community I get when I spend time in them. I don't get that from Amazon. But like anyone without an unlimited well of money to draw from, I just can't afford to pay too much of a premium for the things I need and want.

Like most people, I want it all. I want the deep discounts that I get from Amazon and other online retailers, and I want my local small businesses to thrive. In some cases those desires are proving to be mutually exclusive. But they don't have to be, at least not for all small businesses, especially those that manage to adapt to this ugly/beautiful, brave new world.