Beyond the big box: the past and (possible) future of media-shopping

Beyond the big box: the past and (possible) future of media-shopping

For years, I and just about everyone I knew kept “The List.” Sometimes it was a literal list, hand-written on the back of an old receipt and tucked into a corner of our wallets. More often we kept it in our heads, and if we were on the road in a new city, we’d hit the local record stores, bookstores, comic book stores, and video stores, checking for the items we could never find in our neighborhood boutiques. Me, I’d head straight to the “W”s, searching for early Wedding Present CDs. Or I’d scour around for the issues of Starman that hadn’t been collected in the trades, or for out-of-print Pauline Kael collections, or import John Woo DVDs. Having a list of wants was such a major part of being a pop-culture fanatic back in the ’80s and ’90s that I often knew the contents of my friends’ lists as well, and would take a moment to see if I could find that Fall album they were missing, or that rare VHS copy of Cutter’s Way.

Internet retailing killed The List almost overnight. I remember encountering CDNow, back when I got my first office job and had my first daily access to the Internet. I brought a dog-eared copy of The Trouser Press Record Guide into work and within months had picked up at least two dozen albums that I’d been hunting for years. Later I used Amazon, eBay, Mile High Comics, and the like, and before too long, I got in the now-familiar habit of reading about a movie, book, or record and immediately hopping online to find it. Instant gratification—no list required.

Well, near-instant. There was always the matter of waiting days or sometimes weeks for a shipment to arrive. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t completely stop shopping at brick-and-mortar stores after The Age Of Amazon arrived. I liked the expediency of walking into a record shop during my lunch hour on the day of a much-anticipated new album’s release, and then spending the afternoon listening to it on repeat, same as fans everywhere.

The other reason I kept shopping was that it was a deeply ingrained habit, dating back to my idle teenage years. Before I could drive, I’d go to the mall with my parents on a Friday night, have dinner in the food court, and then browse through Waldenbooks and Camelot Records for an hour before meeting back up by the fountain. In college at the University Of Georgia, I had a weekly routine that involved stopping at the same downtown Athens newsstand to flip through music and movie magazines before hitting the record stores and comic book shop to see what was new—and to see if they had any of the titles I’d just read about. Later, after I got married and moved to a small town in Arkansas, I tried to drive down to Little Rock every couple of weeks to shop for comics, books, and records, until having kids made half-day trips into the city less practical and I started settling for a weekly visit to our local big-box media superstore, Hastings

Shopping can be a goal-driven exercise; you need something, you go get it. But it can also be purely exploratory. Even in a big-box, there are opportunities to find something you hadn’t expected to find, or to be exposed to something new. I’ve never been a “buy one item and leave” kind of shopper. I need to buy two or three to feel like a trip’s been worth it. And so at least a half-dozen times in my life, I’ve bought an album after hearing it for the first time playing over a store’s speakers. More times than I can count, I’ve bought a book or a DVD that caught my eye when I went into a store looking for something else. Shopping can spark ideas, make connections, and foster a spirit of discovery.

The Internet has been altering that aspect of shopping too, though it’s been a much slower and more painful process than the death of The List. It’s not that “the people who bought that also bought this” recommendation-engines aren’t a decent-enough substitute for an excellent brick-and-mortar store’s knowledgeable clerks and smart filing systems. I have found books, records, and the like by following the “recommended for you” trail, and while it’s not the same experience exactly, there’s still some spirit of discovery involved. No, the problem is that online retailing has been making it harder and harder for the big-boxes in particular to compete. In addition to the recent news about Borders’ bankruptcy, The Wall Street Journal is reporting this week that Best Buy is in trouble, losing market share rapidly to Amazon.

I’m not surprised. I stopped my weekly visits to our local big-boxes years ago, largely because their stock kept dwindling. Not their Dow Jones stock—the price of which is also dwindling—but their actual inventory. The same old CDs and DVDs were there, visit after visit, with little to no turnover. If I decided on a whim that I needed a CD copy of an old Who album that I only had on vinyl, more often than not, my local stores wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t even rely on the release-day ritual anymore, because I couldn’t be sure that the media superstores in my town would have, say, the new Drive-By Truckers album on the day it was released.

If I can’t count on finding at least one thing I want on a shopping trip, I’d rather not go at all. And if I don’t go, I’m not going to stumble across something I hadn’t counted on buying. So the whole process breaks down. These days, about the only time that I do any real shopping is when I visit my friends in Chicago and hit the smaller record stores and comic book stores, where I can still find the unexpected.

Can the superstores save themselves? Maybe the ones in less-populated areas, where I live, where there are fewer choices and a larger number of people who aren’t as Internet-savvy. In fact, I’ve been surprised the last few times that I’ve been in my local Hastings to find that while the selection of CDs, DVDs, videogames, electronics, and books is still pretty crummy, the store’s browsability quotient has been upped substantially by an expanded selection of vinyl records, and what seems to be a massive investment in new and back issues of comic books. That’s a strange direction to go in: away from a comprehensive selection, and away from the hottest new releases, and toward niche physical media. And yet I can’t deny that it’s working, at least on me. Increasingly, I have no interest in owning more books or more discs to clutter up my house. But an old-fashioned record album? Or a comic book? Those still provide an experience I’m not entirely ready to leave behind. So Hastings has my business again—or at least my interest.

I don’t know that cultivating the ephemeral is a sustainable business model for the big chains, but it’s certainly something to consider. This past weekend, Dave Kehr wrote an article in The New York Times about how DVDs are disappearing, and about how a lot of out-of-print (or never-released) movies have yet to show up for digital download or streaming. Similarly, last week I did an interview with Oliver Stone (which will be running on this site later this week) in which he talked about Blu-ray as the last collectible medium for movies, and encouraged film fans to buy them and treasure them. Maybe the death of physical media won’t mean an end to shopping as we once knew it, but will instead prompt a nostalgic revival, as people who don’t own (or care about) the latest technology join fervent collectors to flock to the few remaining stores that still carry what we can’t find anywhere else. As titles disappear into the digital realm—or disappear completely—maybe we’ll go back to hunting for our lost favorites again, all while clutching our Lists.

Filed Under: Music, Books, DVD

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