Horses and cars: bricks & mortar and online

Paul Lucas, once manager of one of the north-west’s biggest, busiest and best bookstores, and now an internet entrepreneur, wrote a comment to my last post

When you are located on a high street, your job is to attract as many of the punters passing your doors inside.  [But] a 30% market share of a UK town’s book trade is a big ask, and lots of stock!

[Whereas] online it is okay to be picky.  A 1% share of the global sales of a niche market is much more lucrative and cost effective.

There will always be ‘big’ players competing on price, whatever the arena, but the internet now empowers niche marketing models that old fashioned retail can only dream about.

I think his comment is a useful pointer to the future, and something that all retailers must keep reminding themselves.  Your website is not “another store”, it isn’t simply an alternative way to sell the same products to the same sort of customer.  The more I think about this, the truer I believe it will be – particularly when the competition is as direct as online books vs instore books (identical product), or as directly substitutional as eBooks vs physical books (identical content).

With the closure of the showrooms (Front of Store passim), properly edited and curated websites will be required to sell specialist product.  Will Amazon make the investment in every title to maximise its sales? – at some point, the diminishing returns on the long tail will be a disincentive to catalogue and get behind selling every title they have.  Whereas the specialist online seller of bird books, railway books or 19th century fiction has it in their reach to become the biggest seller of those titles in the world – providing they lay out their “shop window” with sufficient care.

We are looking at “horses and cars” here, not just “a small old shop and a big modern shop”.  The internal combustion engine pretty much totally replaced the horse in the space of about 15 years (in the developed world).  But the car wasn’t a “better horse”.  It couldn’t jump fences, it didn’t recognise its owner, and when it ran low on fuel, you couldn’t whip it to get you home that last mile.

The car lacked qualities the horse had – just as the internet store doesn’t have the personal contact, the serendipity or the tactile pleasure of a good shop.  However, the car could travel further and faster, pull heavier loads, and offer more comfort – qualities the horse couldn’t offer.  The car won, and the horse was duly reinvented as a “leisure product”, concentrating on racing, hunting, cross-country and showjumping, as well as adding nostalgic “tone” to royal weddings and brewers’ carts.

This is the extent to which online and physical retailing differ from each other – and the extent to which eBooks and physical books differ too.  Not a new chapter of an old story, but a brand new tale.  We are still working through the prologue.

Illustration:  Punch, circa 1905.

100 years later, internet signals were still crashing, mobile access was in its infancy, and online payment was unreliable and vulnerable to fraud.  Times change.