Thursday, September 15, 2011

B is for ?

Today I went picking through the bones of the Borders that is closing for good. I didn't buy anything because there was not much left. It was a strange experience to be standing in a hollowed out space that used to be a store where I enjoyed shopping for books. In the Borders stores in other cities, I sometimes attended talks by authors or meetings of discussion groups with kindred spirits.

Cycles are happening so fast that it is easy to watch them come full circle. Back when Borders (and Barnes & Noble)began their rapid expansions in the 80s and 90s, that put the squeeze on lots of small independently owned bookstores. Quite a number of them went out of business as one of the Bs opened a store in every mall and strip mall in the country. If they were not everywhere, it seemed like they were. And they appeared to be a permanent fixture on the American retail landscape.

Ironically it seemed that way for another vacant property right next door, Blockbuster. During the same time frame when Borders was putting a store in every mall, Blockbuster was at least as prolific, and they too, seemed like they would be a permanent part of American retailing. Now most of their stores are closed and some of the remaining ones appear to be focusing on video games.

What the B named stores have in common is that they failed to evolve with the markets. Amazon and Netflix came along and ate their lunch. At one time, parking lots were full of people waiting to pay $5 to rent one video for 3 nights. Now a person can watch all the instant download movies they want for $8 a month, and you never have to drive to a store to exchange hard copies. Most customers made the obvious smart choice.

There is another former chain that began with a B which also is now just another empty property, adjacent to the former Blockbuster and Borders sites, Boston Market. Guess it is just irony that there is so much going on in that part of the alphabet.

Similarly, there were times when I would go to Borders and want to buy a book that was not in stock, maybe a harder to find title. So they would tell me that I could get it in a week or two and that it would cost full retail. Of course, it didn't take long to figure out that I could go online and get it for less than full retail and in less time. Once again, the choice was obvious. Customer loyalty had switched before Blockbuster even tried to offer a competing strategy.

The smaller bookstores held their own for a while by having deeper selections of titles, community bulletin boards, hosting local group meetings and local authors, and the survivors still do such things to establish a place in customers hearts.

So even though I have no plans to open a retail store of any kind, there is a lesson here for everyone who owns a business. Survival requires that we constantly modify our offerings and tailor our services to our customers. We might have started off doing things one way years ago, but reevaluation is necessary, even if we decide not to change anything. There are some businesses that may not need to change from what they have been doing, but increasingly, those seem to be rare.

Small businesses can be fragile because they have less operating capital, but small businesses can also be more nimble, more capable of changing course to adapt to new market conditions.

It is fascinating to watch how rapidly trends evolve. It is a lesson in raising consciousness to recognize how exactly a business cycles through from an idea to a dominant market force to a defunct entity. Even though my business is unrelated to these other businesses, it prompts me to think, and it has strengthened my resolve to alter my overall strategy.

There are valuable lessons in these retail ghost towns. It is up to us to discern what they might be for us.

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