23 05 2011
Let me say that never have trued words been written than Cory Doctorow's introduction to "Makers":
There's a dangerous group of anti-copyright activists out there who pose a clear and present danger to the future of authors and publishing. They have no respect for property or laws. What's more, they're powerful and organized, and have the ears of lawmakers and the press.My first attempt to buy the books got all the way to the actual checkout before the website informed me that their lawyers had decided to conspire against them to prevent me from giving them my money: yes, I was not in some weird non-approved area of the internet. Still prepared to go on, I found an Australian store which would sell me Iron Sunrise and The Atrocity Archive as eBooks. Not my first choice - I had been aiming for Saturn's Children and The Family Trade - but that's OK, I enjoyed Halting State and friends (albeit weird ones that like the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game) had enjoyed the Atrocity Archive. So I bought the books.
I'm speaking, of course, of the legal departments at ebook publishers.
Ah, but the wily legal departments were ahead of me again - they had encrypted the books using some Adobe encryption thing that FBReader didn't understand. There is, it would seem, no way to decode these things with out an "approved" player, and Adobe do not support the Samsung Galaxy S yet.
So I did what any sane, computer literate person would do at this point: I found a copy of the books on the internet and downloaded them for free.
This is the fundamental equation that the legal departments have yet to figure out: broken versus working. We're happy to pay, but not for something that doesn't work - and I mean it has to work everywhere. Every-****ing-where. Because if it doesn't, you've just made people go and find it somewhere else that does. It may not even be for free on the internet, it may be from your competitor's site. But your customers will leave you if they can get it working somewhere else. Figuratively, I went to a store, gave them some money, they popped my book in a bag, swapped that bag for a bag exactly the same weight and size filled with confetti, and gave it back to me.
It's not even "expensive and broken" versus "free and working", because we've already established that I wanted to pay for the ebook. I want to support Charlie Stross, and I want to support a bookstore and a publisher that will sell me a book in electronic format. Cory Doctorow covers all the things I want to say about ebook licensing, restrictions, and that kind of stupidity in his introduction, so I won't bore you with them. But I don't want to take Cory's bargain and buy a printed book, making the publisher think that dead tree accretions are more popular than ebooks. I want an ebook that works.
So, given the choice of the unpalatable, the unwanted and not paying the author a cent, I will choose the unpalatable. I will buy what ebooks I can. If they are shackled with digital restrictions, I will find a free version and download it afterward. And I will find them, because they will be there. Hopefully, some day, the publishers will save me the trouble of fixing their mistakes.
Reading it, however, I felt no real surprise and only a sense of sadness. The idea is that for retail stores to push "the experience" rather than just the price. People would go to Myers to meet and hang around with the purchasing elite; you might sip champagne and hear string quartets play while discussing fashion and homewares with the staff and like-minded shoppers. The article listed this consultant as having helped Microsoft, Borders and other large corporations come into the internet era.
Really? Even Apple fanatics don't go to Mac shops to hang out with people who also purchase Apple equipment. As far as I can see, people going shopping would rather not meet any other shoppers in their perambulations through the store - they'd rather have staff who pop up when requested, disappear when ignored, and know enough to answer questions correctly. Shopping as a social experience is done with friends, not complete strangers; even for exclusive fashion stores the idea is to be seen and to enjoy the exclusiveness, not to sit around and chat with random people. The whole idea is absurd.
Now, admittedly, my experience with exclusive fashion stores is pretty much nil, and my method of shopping for most of these items is antithetical to any idea of socialising: I work out what I want, I go in, I look at all the available options, I choose what I want (if anything), I pay and I get out. I don't mind being at least polite in a store - if someone's obviously curious about an item that I have some experience with I'll happily answer their questions or even offering a bit of advice if someone has a question that I can help with. Even at computer fairs, where I have been known to wander around checking random prices without any intent to buy those things even in the near future, I don't tend to socialise. But I still think most people would agree that they don't want to have social interactions in a store that are irrelevant to what they're looking for.
And the thing that really gives this away as a stupid con is that it's really actually almost what the stores do already. Marketing for those stores has always emphasised the look, the fashion, the style - carrying the bag of a designer clothes store through the mall has always been a statement about your fashion sense and purchasing power as much as it has been to own the thing in the bag. This "new strategy" doesn't change their mode of business, it just puts a new marketing pitch on it.
So it's really doomed to fail also, because it fails to acknowledge why people are shopping online: for the price. They know what they want and now they want to find somewhere that can give them one as cheap as is reasonable. We haven't suddenly turned into a society of asocial bastard shoppers; we're actually sick and tired of greeters, salespeople that are in your face when you want to browse and never there when you have a question, demonstration devices that don't work or don't allow you to test the device fully, and the whole ghastly traffic / parking ticket / crush of people / bland muzak / endless tramping experience. I'd rather spend that two hours shopping online, in my own home, in my comfortable clothes, sitting down, listening to my own music. Experience? No amount of champagne, exclusive brands, new seasons catalogues and perfectly groomed, charming salespeople can outweigh all the awfulness of going shopping in a modern mall.
My advice, for free (because it's the internet), to those stores is simple.
Sell the things that people want to buy from a real store. Then make the experience of buying in a store as easy and practical - I won't say enjoyable - for your customers as possible.
Seriously, most of it flows naturally from there. Don't bother with selling DVDs at Myers when they're already cheaper at JB Hifi and cheaper still online. The entire mall, from the entrances and parking spots to the locations of the toilets and price of the coffe, is part of the experience - don't decorate up to your front door and leave the rest as a hollow, concrete wasteland. Emphasise how safe it is to shop in a store, how the customers details and credit card information is secure. For the things that you do specialise in, make sure your range is good. For some things you can probably allow people a cheaper price if they don't buy one in the store but have your mail-order section post it to them (after all, that one hasn't been sitting in your valuable shop space). Make it easy for people to buy stuff from you online, too - use the technology where it works rather than avoiding it.
And make sure your staff enjoy their work. Putting pressure on them to sell a certain amount every $time_period makes them desperate, and customers can spot this three quarters of a league off in heavy fog. Avoid the cliched, inappropriate Americocentric selling techniques and manner of the eighties and nineties. You should see your staff as people to get involved in the whole process, rather than cloned droids with no personality.
I don't want retailers to die off. I think having a physical shop front to go and try things at is a useful thing: there are plenty of things that I want to try out or try on, or have a knowledgeable person on hand to ask questions about. And for things like warranty claims, purchasing compatible accessories, and finding out new brands or types, a shop front is much more convenient than an internet retailer. But I've bought things through the internet - I would have never thought I would have bought online: TVs, perfumes, fruit and veg (can't find a link, because it was long ago in Brisbane), even peppermints, as well as all the things we now buy and take for granted will be available on the internet - computer parts, books, CDs, and all sorts of neat gadgets. I've bought these things at shop fronts, too, so it doesn't have to be the death-knell of the retail industry.
And what's the next thing? What happens after the internet makes getting almost anything you want available easily from almost anywhere? I see a long process of things gradually getting easier to find, marketplaces consolidating, and drop-shipping mega-sites becoming more comprehensive, but that just increases the existing players. Where we pay money for formatted, compiled data - books, videos, music, etc. - it'll be distributed directly to you via the internet; these things will get more available and cheaper as competition and opening up of markets gradually overcome the idiocy of digital restrictions and market segmentation.
And the end, really, is the post-scarcity society: where you can have anything made available for you at close to zero cost, and the work you do participating in the society is valued enough to pay for that cost. Which is really the digital economy applied to physical things, because practically speaking we already have a system to distribute copies of data throughout the world at near enough to zero cost. Post-scarcity will happen - in some things it can be said to already be here - it's just a question of when.
To reuse Linus's quote: we don't aim to be the death of retail stores. That will be a totally unintended side-effect.
All posts licensed under the CC-BY-NC license. Author Paul Wayper.
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