Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lamenting the Demise of the Post's Book World and Why Some Sticks & Mortar Companies Seem to WANT to Fail

Today The Washington Post announced that it is discontinuing its stand-alone Book World section from the Sunday paper as a way of reducing costs. Although the Post says Book World "will live on in digital form, as a site on" I believe that these sorts of solutions in the long run will have a detrimental affect on Post readership.

When newspapers were dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age, succumbing to posting articles on a web site, they claimed that providing free content online would cause folks to cancel subscriptions and simply read the news online. By moving to provide special content -- such as the Literary Calendar and a wider variety of book reviews -- online ONLY, the Post (as well as other newspapers that have opted for the "online only" special content solution to reduce print production costs) is guaranteeing that folks will no longer have a reason to subscribe to their print version.

But this self-harming way of thinking is not strictly limited to print newspapers. Sticks & mortar retailers are also shooting themselves in the foot with reliance on the "well, you can always go on our web site if you want it" mentality.

For example:

Yesterday I took my 3-yr-old daughter to the mall to get some good snow gloves. We had just dug ourselves out of the DC area's first major snowfall and I was getting tired of hanging knit mittens over furnace vents to dry out. Note: had we bought gloves in September, when the stores had just put out their winter gear, the gloves would probably not have fit my daughter by January as she has grown nearly three inches over that period of time.

When we got to the local mall, all the retailers had their spring collections out. Not a single snow glove to be found anywhere. In L.L. Bean, I asked one salesperson if they had any snow gloves. The record of our conversation is as follows:

Salesperson: "Oh, we ran out of gloves for the inauguration."

Me: "Well, usually when stores run out of something, they restock."

Salesperson: "Well, the company ran out."

Me: "So L.L. Bean will not be manufacturing any more gloves until next winter?"

Salesperson: "You can probably order them from our online catalog."

Me: "So, if I order them today, they'll be delivered in five days and by that time the snow will be gone."

Salesperson: Silence...

Me: "Never mind. I'll try another store."

Now, call me a curmugeon, but I think this whole "You can find it online" attitude is EXACTLY what will be the demise of sticks and mortar companies unless they can find ways of making it BETTER for someone to, say, buy their print edition rather than just going online for it. Or for a potential customer to, say, come to the store that you pay big per-square-foot bucks for, rather than simply telling someone to buy that item online.

Booksellers are facing similar problems with the advent of online ordering. But some few are finding ways to remain "relevant enough" in their communities by providing things you can't get online: in-store readings and activities, cafes and live performances.

At the start of this whole crazy internet thing, the big marketing challenge was how to find ways of making the digital world work for you. As newspapers and other sticks and mortar companies are finding out, the new marketing challenge is figuring out how to remain relevant in order to survive in the tangible world.


washwords said...

oh that is sad! hey bernadette it's jennie from our poetry workshop with dana aka washwords. I'd like to include your post today on dc blogs noted tomorrow and thanks for the tip. Already not reading the Post everyday anymore, I missed it, but it is a sad day indeed.

Bernadette Geyer said...

Hi Jennie! It's great to hear from you... Feel free to mention on DC Blogs Noted. The only sections of the Sunday paper I ever read religiously anymore are Outlook, Sunday Source (also recently discontinued), Style, Travel, Book World and the Magazine.

lacochran said...

The WaPo is in a downward spiral. Much like the rest of the economy.

Less people subscribe so they cut content so less people subscribe so they cut content so...

Well, you know.

The internet is killing lots of businesses and perhaps will kill books, too, once you can use your phone to access the internet everywhere (including on planes.)

Sad? Perhaps. Meanwhile there's a boatload of quality writing on the Internet. Just have to weed through all the chaff.

And your POST begs the question--did you send a letter to the editor in hopes of seeing it in the hard copy edition?

Bernadette Geyer said...

Nope. I didn't send it as a letter to the editor.

Don't forget that the internet may have caused the demise of "some" businesses, but it has spawned hundreds of thousands of others.

I admit I will never stop buying books, even if everything is available electronically. I just love the look/feel of a book in my hands: paper texture, cover art, turning pages, dog-earing corners, etc.

Video didn't kill the radio star... it just made them think differently about marketing their audio (and makeup application). Nowadays, it's all about figuring out how each medium should be used to its particular advantage.

If only Marshall McLuhan were alive today to provide some guidance - many companies are simply broadcasting the same damn message across all mediums.

Pounding square pegs into round holes didn't work in the past, nor does it work now, nor will it be any easier in the future...