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 washingtonpost.com" 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.
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."
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.