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.