Friday, November 12, 2010


Great song by Coldplay, of course. But to the point -- some brief notes before getting back to Strawbridge's:

Best Buy plans to cut back its newspaper spend. If that money was going to online, it'd be one thing. But Best Buy, the ultimate mass retailer, is going to use it on something it considers more effective and mass. Our old friend television. Yes, this is replaying the late 1980s. Either Best Buy is total idiots, or they're saying something about the utility of the Long Tail Internet for true mass marketers.

Their problem? Metro newspapers no longer deliver their mass audience. (The Macons and Rockfords of the world still do in their markets.) Best Buy has been among the newspaper business' best customers and also among those who have said to newspapers, look, get it together. "We're seeing a shift back to traditional media. And TV still has a gigantic reach," said the head of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, who doubtless wants there to be a shift back to traditional media but says that the ROI on digital -- and remember how cheap digital ads are -- isn't showing up. That switch won't include newspapers as long as they appear to be a medium only read by people 75 and older, which will happen as long as newspapers say "We don't believe anyone under 75 will ever read our newspapers." If I were 25, I wouldn't want to read an old-folks medium even if I thought I might want to.

Only the newspaper business would find itself owning the Associated Press, as it does, and being told that the AP was losing money on serving newspapers and was going to remedy that eventually. Again, that's not on serving "print" newspapers. That's serving newspaper clients and their online sites. First-rate news, third-rate businesses.

And to get back to big-box stores, news from retailing on the front page of the New York Times: Not quite so big box stores, the Old Navy size, are downsizing and finding, perhaps to their surprise, that more people, not fewer, are coming into smaller stores. Now, this story has some weaknesses in the classic Times manner -- the lead promises more than is delivered, although by the end all the "we can't actually say this"es have all been said. The stores may be paying rent on the space they're not using, but that doesn't mean costs don't go down -- you're not having to have enough clerks to watch a larger room for theft and set up the displays, or straighten the merchandise, or put up signage. But it's in keeping with a problem department stores (and newspapers) have had for years: People have to be trained in how to use them efficiently.

A newspaper is a wonderful agglomeration of content even in the Internet age -- but you have to know how to use it (this is here, this is presented this way...) and be willing to spend the time using it exclusively. In department store terms, there's a wonderful selection of kitchen appliances when you want an iron, but you have to be willing to walk past perfumes and jewelry, take the escalator, turn around, and go past luggage. Then you have to find your way out, which is often harder.

In the Google era, your experience -- it's not the reality, there's a lot more starting and stopping and blind alleys than you realize, but you can always be doing something else at the same time -- seems to go from: I want appliances. Search for appliances. Find appliances. Having done so, walking into even an appliance store to look for an iron seems interminably long. I don't want no steenking gadgets. What I really want is: An iron store! I drive up to Iron World, walk in, and there are irons. No confusion. No need to ask the clerk, "Where are the irons," and have the clerk look at me with contempt as she says, "Behind you." I feel like I have not wasted my time, even if I spent 10 minutes more in Iron World than I would have in Appliance City.

As a person with Bloomingdale's notes, these are "stores that have been stripped of the distractions and temptations of unwanted merchandise." That sounds like the New Frugality, and it's certainly the New Inventory, but it also speaks of a change in shopper mentality -- if everything in the world is available online, why do I want to go to a store that has some of everything in the world when I am only there for a specific niche -- as with H&M and Zara, not even a specific product, but a specific gestalt? If I want everything in the world, I'll go online. But most of the time, I don't really want everything in the world. In that case, bricks and mortar works just fine. (Note to Long Tail enthusiasts: Yes, categories such as books suffer more than Iron World, because the number of irons is somewhat limited, whereas the number of books appears to be infinite. The number of blouses is infinite, but the number of blouses with H&M cred is not.)

As noted here before, it's not that the department store and newspaper failed to have enough content. They tried their darndest. It's that the amount of content available in the world rapidly exploded far beyond their ability to have a representative sample of Everything for Everyone. So you've got to figure out what your niche is -- who your customers are and can be, as opposed to who your customers used to be or who you wish they still were -- and then serve them to your profit, with your pipeline, and not worry so much about people who are never going to be your customers. And your pipeline can be Anything You Want It to Be.

And as Best Buy shows, your customers may not be living all their lives online at all. Newspapers, though, are still thinking that somehow they can create, online now, some product or combination of products that will still Grab Everyone in the Market. As Best Buy also shows, newspapers' problem is that that product was introduced after World War II and is ultimately responsible for their current fate far more than broadband access.

I'd just ask Best Buy, what can we do that works for you, and not worry so much if we can get the same product to work for Joe's Vinyl Record World that wants to reach 3,000 Long Tail vinyl fanatics. Let him be a customer of and never have anything to do with a newspaper. But that's not how newspapers think traditionally -- there's local money on the table! We must try to grab it all, because in the past we could! We will find The One Answer! (Alas, he's in Istanbul now.) If One Answer had worked, newspapers would not have started to decline once they were down to one title per market. (Wonder what would have happened to TV from the 1960s to 1980s if it had been reduced to one station per city, as advertisers might have seen as a efficient buy back then? Bless those government licenses. It goes in line with the theory that American religiosity stems not from the Puritan tradition but from the history of competition among churches, which was nonexistent in most nations.)

None of this looks good for newspapers whether they have printing presses or not. What's a printie to do? Talk about copy editing's obscure points, as at my entry here on the American Copy Editors Society's board notes.

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