business news in context, analysis with attitude

Lots of responses to yesterday’s stories about the ongoing competition between Main Street and e-commerce.

MNB user Marty Berlin wrote:

Small business is definitely facing some difficult challenges and I certainly don’t want to minimize that in any way. However as you stated, denying reality is not the answer. Getting traffic in the store is the first challenge and if an e-business is helping to do that for the brick and mortar businesses (even if it is only to window shop), it would be wise for those operators to find a way to take advantage of that. Make sure that the visit is an “experience”, one that makes the customer want to come back……again, and again. Fill it with sights, scents, tastes and touches that appeal to the senses. Engage the customer and build some relationships. Do whatever you can to add value to the “hands-on” experience.

Pike’s Place Fish Market in Seattle is a great example. There are a lot of places you can buy fish, but only one place I know of to have the experience you get at Pike’s.  It’s like going to the movies. We can certainly wait until the latest movie comes out on DVD to see it, but people still like to watch it at the theater. The big screen, big sound, the feeling of being part of the community, good popcorn, etc., all add to the experience.

Price is not going to do it for the majority of small businesses, whether their main competitor is e-business or a big-box store. But value/satisfaction is defined differently by different people and the opportunities are endless. If a small business is going to survive, they have to find out what that value/satisfaction is and then find a way to deliver it.

MNB user Sara Harrington wrote:

As a mother of a 4 year old who fully believes in Santa, I have searched for two “hot” toys for that age group in many stores and online. In both cases, stores don’t have them and the only place I can get them is on The only problem is that Amazon is charging literally double for both items. So it’s great that they have them in stock but they have lost a lot of points in my book for what I consider price gauging. And I buy from Amazon quite often and I’m (usually) a big fan. I did not purchase either toy through them though because even though they are convenient and have it in stock doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay twice the price.

Wow. I’m shocked by this. I suspect that it may not have been Amazon that was charging double, but rather one of the third-party vendors with which it works, and over which it exerts no price control. Because I’ve never heard of this happening before.

From another MNB user:

Last Saturday I tried to buy at a brick and mortar. But they were out of stock. They were nice enough to check nearby locations and found inventory at another store that was actually closer to home. Went there and found out that their inventory system is updated only once a day and they were out of stock at this location also. Went home and bought from Amazon. It arrived today (Monday). Sometimes brick and mortar stores bring their troubles upon themselves.

I wrote yesterday about my experience buying a physical book from a local bookstore where the author - former President Bill Clinton - was doing a signing.

Which led one MNB user to write:

Let’s go back to that bookstore.

It employs local people, it pays real estate taxes, it generates sales tax for the state and locality, it uses local utilities, it may even pay local bookkeepers, tax accountants, cleaning services, etc. Amazon does none of the above, so they can give you the low ball price. Amazon will do nothing for you on the day when you are in a strange town, with your luggage lost, wet socks, and no local business left to sell you dry socks.

If you’re lucky, that day will be when you land in The Keys, and you can just kick your shoes off and run barefoot in the sand.

If I’m lucky.

Another MNB user wrote:

Nice article, always great to get to meet an ex-president no matter what your politics are. It was very nice of President Clinton to highlight independents, too many people sign exclusives with the big boys and shut out the small time players. It seems to be the sign of the times, unfortunately.

Yet another MNB user wrote:

Yesterday after driving 5 miles to Toys R Us to get a couple things for my granddaughter and waiting in a long line to check out (5 of 14 checkouts were open on a busy Sunday afternoon) I was thinking maybe it was time to switch to e-tailers.   But get it delivered - earlier I had stopped at WALMART to pick up an item my daughter-in law ordered online and had shipped to store.  The layaway and on-line pickup was at the same counter - an even longer and slower moving line.  I will go back another time.

Still another MNB user chimed in:

As consumers are we supposed to limit our purchasing powers to “like” establishments? If I want to buy a sweater, why should I be limited to a brick & mortar store just because I saw it there first? Competition is competition and my dollar will be spent where and how I see fit. And who are these “retail trade groups”? Don’t they represent on-line stores as well? I am not anti-small business. But I am anti – “telling me how I should  make my purchases.”

A wiser man than me once said “competition is a verb”.

From another reader:

Did you go out of your way to work in that last paragraph?  “Can’t stop thinking about tomorrow…” – how Clinton-esque. Bravo.

I am no longer a hard cover book–ophile, Kindle is my weapon of choice. And I am a registered independent. But if someone of the stature of Bill Clinton was in my neighborhood bookstore to sign copies, I think it would be well worth the investment of $25 or so to meet him. In these days of 15 minute celebrity, it’s rare to come across a bonafide VIP. This is exactly the type of effort and thinking that small brick & mortars need to live by in order to survive and generate the most valuable asset – foot traffic.

I am an avid hockey fan. I don’t have the chance to see the games first hand but I watch them all on television. After my Bruins won last year, I saw all of the TV specials, read all the newspaper and magazine stories, and watched the highlight DVDs. But when the travels of Lord Stanley’s Cup passed through my home town, you can be sure I was on line awaiting my chance to see it for real. You cannot replace physical, three dimensional experience and if a business person can apply that to his trade, success and sales are sure to follow.


MNB user Jarrett Paschel wrote:

Regarding the constant tension between brick and mortar and Amazon, there is one issue that I rarely see discussed. Namely, there is no substitute for a curated selection that one can easily browse.

I just bought the new Michael Lewis book (Boomerang) after flipping through it at Barnes & Noble. I had no idea of its existence, and the odds are quite high that I probably would never known about it had I not encountered it there. I LOVE Amazon and am a Prime member, but no recommendation engine can ever compete with the physicality of browsing.

I say this not to suggest that we pass some legislative mandate limiting Amazon’s reach. Rather, I’m just saying that if the brick and mortars don’t figure out how to compete, there will be a LOT of authors losing out on potential sales. People can babble on about innovative ways to “get the word out” or building better search engines, but the bottom line is that I rarely wake up in the morning with the urge to find an unknown book to order from Amazon. On the other hand, if I find myself wandering by a book store, I often leave with a sack of stuff I never would have thought to buy. Impulse buys work very well in the physical, not so well in the virtual. An empty search window on a browser just doesn’t do it.

I have no answer--or political position--regarding this problem. But what I do know is that if brick and mortars fall by the wayside, we are going to witness a regression to a lowest common denominator selection of stuff.  The Lady Gagas of the moment will be fine, but the rest will struggle mightily.

I will tell you this. Getting the book that Michael Sansolo and I wrote into physical bookstores was a major hairball. Getting it on Amazon and Kindle and iBooks (and now Nook, by the way), was a relative breeze, and has represented a wonderful source of continuing sales.

For what it’s worth.

One final thought. Yesterday, we had four stories with the theme of “Main Street vs. E-Street.” But what I also should have said is that I firmly believe that the Main Street retailers who will win are the ones who figure out how to not make it ”either/or,” but offer both options, because they understand that the consumer makes decisions based on what is convenient and appropriate, not because of some philosophical bent.
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