Tuesday, February 24, 2009

First Floor, Not Everything

My pal Ehren Meditz alerted me to this article in the Dallas Morning News about the plight and apparent death spiral of ne-- no, not newspapers, but department stores. The disgruntled department store shopper sounds like the disgruntled newspaper non-user -- now that the universe of what I can buy is, basically, the universe, the department store simply can't have enough, or at the right price, or in the front of the store, or what I saw on the Oscars in stock five days later, or, or -- check out in particular the "department store paradoxes" at the bottom of the story.

When I was a child, and my mother would take me shopping at Ayres, Block's and Wasson's -- I wonder why we were grammatically incorrect and never called it Ayreses' -- occasionally they would not have something in my size. No problem; we just looked for the same thing, or nearly the same thing, at one of the other stores. The same thing for my mother and grandmother. Ayres might not have the right size purple housedress, but Block's would have it (it might be the same line, if not it would be close enough).

The stores had a wide enough selection that you didn't feel that you were missing anything. Indianapolis was not a city of specialty stores. For women's clothing downtown, there were a couple of mass-appeal shops -- Morrison's and Three Sisters -- that my mother avoided, plus Peck & Peck and a store my mother did like called Schamberg's. There were some neighborhood stores -- Peacock's was ours, run by a relative of the Ayres family -- and the occasional children's wear store like Tot 'n' Teen, but for women's and children's wear, furniture, appliances, carpets, china, etc., if you shopped the three big stores, you had pretty much seen what was on offer. (Men had a couple more choices -- Strauss, which was almost a department store, and Harry Levinson, which had been a hat store.) Just like back then, the newspaper -- newspapers at that time -- gave you 90 percent of what you could have found out about that day's happenings anywhere else.

When Glendale, our first big shopping center on the Northside, opened, there were some new shops -- Kay Bradfield for women and Roderick St. John's for men -- but the same pattern held -- there was Ayres, there was Block's, there was Morrison's, there was Strauss, and Harry Levinson. It wasn't until the mall put a roof overhead -- making the whole mall into a department store of stores -- and stores such as the Gap and the Limited opened that it became more apparent that some mall stores, and later big box stores, were selling lines and styles you couldn't even find in a department store. If you search for shopping malls in Europe, you find that malls can even be called department stores there -- because they don't have the traditional anchor store.

And once this all happened, the fact that they didn't have that shirt in medium suddenly loomed larger -- why bother with the department store at all? It might be overpriced or not have your size or not have the style you wanted. Chances are that it would only be lacking in one of those areas. Chances are the boutiques would be equally lacking. But the boutiques you could just run in and out of and drift back into the mall, which was never out of view. The disappointment was not as great, because the commitment of time and energy was less. (Think of the people who stand in the middle of a department store and have no idea where to go to get back into the mall.) Sort of like the average amount of time a reader spends with news online as opposed to the printed newspaper.

Department stores such as Bloomingdale's did try to answer this question with: So what sort of merchandise are people willing to spend time looking through? And thus came the era of in-store boutiques, which worked for Bloomingdale's but didn't work for mid-range stores like Hudson's and Halle's because half of their customers essentially said -- we're not willing to spend any time at all. We either want to flit about, or we just want the lowest price possible at Walmart.

So I agree with Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal that newspapers were dumb to not ask themselves "What content will people pay for" as opposed to "How can we get people to pay for the content we want to produce." As he notes, Stewart Brand said both that information wants to be free and information wants to be expensive; one wonders what the last 10 years would have been like had he changed the order in which he said that.

Newspapers' biggest mistake with online was not, in the end, the longest free introductory offer in history; it was thinking that online simply equaled existing newspaper minus printing press, just as department stores thought mall equaled downtown minus streets and poor people.

But I am not sure how the Journal example solves the problem for the Oregonian or the World-Herald or the Commercial Appeal. The level of scale they have to operate at to be the Oregonian or the World-Herald -- can they ever come up with enough content to place with a price tag to support themselves?

Which brings us back to Christine Urban, who reminds us (at the end of this piece): "I think we have so convinced ourselves it's OK that print goes away. ... There are hundreds of thousands of people in markets that do not get their news from the Internet and, thank you very much, don't want to get it from the Internet." Why do we treat those people like idiots? Because to an Internet enthusiast, how could anyone be so stupid as to not want to get news from the Internet? And that leads us to memories of the hot box, to come.


Two addenda. First, thanks to Alan Mutter for this post on, you know, Jeff Jarvis. I don't remember communist theory, but there were all these intermediate steps on the road to Pure Communism, and somehow, we never got there, and the length of time it would take to get there just kept getting more open-ended because, just as with Millerites' date for the end of the world, the truth is not out there. The Internet revolution has allowed endless refrains of "Imagine all the people, sharing all the world ..." Yes, I'd like that too, but as Jeff says: "Dog's gotta eat."

Finally, while I do try not to comment on events at my own employer -- yes, bankruptcy court is a heavy weight hanging over us. But so was the end of Knight Ridder and so is the possible death sentence for the Chron and so is the situation at GM and Chrysler and God knows what else. So that weight is hanging over everyone these days as the country deals with the fact that 30 percent of the money that existed three years ago is simply gone. So I won't be drawing attention to it, unless I suddenly find myself with an immense amount of time to write blog entries.


Buy Tramadol Online said...

Newspapers are going to be around for a while. The new Apple Ipad may create a new medium that may become the preference for reading. I know I like hold a magazine or book when reading. I guess we will see.

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