What do Amazon, Apple, Best Buy and defunct catalog showrooms have in common? | Bill McLoughlin


In the category of everything old is new again, Best Buy is testing a new 5,000-square-foot format outside Charlotte, NC., sporting more curated assortments and a check-out process reminiscent of catalog showrooms of the 1980s and ’90s.

For those of you too young to remember retailers like Service Merchandise or Consumers Distributing, catalog showrooms once numbered in the thousands and were major players in the RTA furniture, small appliance and housewares businesses. In their heyday, they were a faster, cheaper way to get brand-name hard goods at discounted prices.

The amount of merchandise physically on display varied, but the essence of the concept was that consumers could see a small selection of product on display and access a larger selection via catalogs placed on a counter inside the store.  After placing an order, consumers would wait for their purchase to be brought out from the stock room in back.

The concept was eventually outmoded by the ability of discounters like Walmart, Target, etc., to offer comparable product selections in a more convenient cash-and-carry format. Rather than waiting once to place an order and a second time for it to be delivered to the front of the store, consumers preferred to help themselves to the merchandise and quickly check out.

The new Best Buy format, like many new test concepts, minimizes (but not completely eliminates) the need for human interaction when making a purchase. See a product you want? Scan its QR code, and someone will go get it for you to purchase. No catalog, but the wait is the same.

A recent report on the format compared the new Best Buy test format with Apple stores, complete with Geek Squad service. Anyone who’s shopped an Apple store might wonder why anyone would try to duplicate that experience.

Want to buy an iPhone? You need to make an appointment, and someone will be with you in 45 minutes. You know what model you want and just want to make a purchase? Still need an appointment. Just want one of the dozens of boxes of ear buds stacked on the shelf? Still need an appointment.

If there is one thing you learn studying the history of retail it’s that evolution always moves in the direction of convenience.

In its infancy, Sears killed thousands of local retailers with its massive catalog that delivered almost anything, almost anywhere. It was the Amazon of its time making shopping from home as convenient as the technology of the day allowed.

Department stores in their time delivered superior convenience, killing downtown merchants with massive assortments and even more massive mall parking lots. To the generation that popularized drive-ins, drive-thrus, motels and station wagons, it was like retail catnip.

Amazon has grown to frightening scale by delivering the most convenient shopping experience in the history of mankind.

Certainly convenience is not the only factor that goes into drawing consumers to a retail format. But as the retail industry continues to explore new ways to keep brick-and-mortar vibrant, it’s worth remembering that no one ever built a volume business by making it harder, slower or more difficult for a consumer to get what they want.

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