Monday, March 30, 2015

Week of 03/30/2015

Messing Up Their Own Markets
This column will be going online during the week of April 1st, which is the nineteenth anniversary of the weekly commentary that you know today as Brutally Honest.
There is a lot that has happened since that very first article went online.  Some good... a lot bad... and more than some that have been completely horrible.
But what’s sort of interesting is how today’s world has been gradually resembling the fictional one from my very first article.
In “An Electronic Nightmare from the Not-So-Distant Future”, I give you a hypothetical world that has been sanitized and dumbed down to the level of a child, thanks in no small part to censorship legislation.  A world where computers were pretty much nothing more than toys, and an actual computer to do actual business work with was an outdated subject.  A world where a computer store was a rapidly dying business and you can literally hear its dying breath in the closing of the door.
Well the legislation was thankfully squashed in the courts, but it seems a lot of the other things are sort-of coming true.
Computers... actual desktop computers... are being replaced with not just laptop computers, but tablets, smartphones, and, yes, watches.  All of your files can be stored on cloud servers, including your music and videos.
The most popular programs?  Mindless games and apps designed for the simplest of users.
Big electronics stores like Best Buy used to put computers up in the forefront.  Where are they now?  In the sidelines.  You know what took their place?  Cellphones.
And it’s not just the location of the computers in the store that has changed.  Wireless networking is no longer with the computers.  Routers, switches, cables, they all are located in the same area as overpriced wireless speakers and custom-controlled lighting systems.  Battery backups?  Over by the TV sets.  What used to be strictly computer accessories are now shared by gaming consoles, TV entertainment centers, and, of course, cellphones.  Oh, sorry, smartphones.
That brings us to the ongoing downfall of a longtime electronics store, and one that had a hand in the early years of my days in online radio.
When I was younger, Radio Shack was “the” big electronic store.  The toy store for anyone who was “too old” for toys.  Not only could I buy a radio there, I could actually make a radio.  They offered kits and boards and soldering equipment.  Back when CB radios were the “social networking” of the day, you could buy one, and an antenna, and walkie-talkies, and stay connected thanks to Radio Shack.
When I got started doing audio effects for my school theater group, and later did amateur DJ work, I got my equipment from Radio Shack.  My amplifier, microphone, headphones, mixer boards, batch cables, and adaptors galore not only came from Radio Shack, but they carried the in-store Tandy brand.  Most of that same equipment would later be used when I started my online radio shows, ten years after I originally bought them.  Yes, electronic items used to actually last that long.
Those were the days.
So it saddens me to see the recent news reports of Radio Shack’s financial implosion and the news that over eleven-hundred stores nationwide are being closed down so what is left of the company can possibly survive bankruptcy.  My quest for those rare adaptors and patch cords to make my various devices work will be that much harder in the future.
But they’re not the only ones struggling.
Office supply companies Staples and the combined Office Depot/Office Max conglomerate have also announced they’re planning on shutting down stores even as their so-called “business experts” work on a merger that would essentially create one monopolist office supply company.  In fact Staples has already shut down the local store here, forcing customers to either travel further into Atlanta proper or seek those same materials at Wal-Mart.
Funny, isn’t it, how every so-called “smart business decision” ends up driving customers more and more to Wal-Mart?
Yet if you look at these stores, you’d see that there seems to be a common thread to their downfall... and it’s not just the threat of competition from so-called “big box” stores like Wal-Mart.
Radio Shack used to be known as the place you would go for electronic devices and electronic equipment.  Yet, when I would show up in any of their stores, what would be the first things I would see?  Remote-controlled toys, telephones, and cellphones.  They pretty much skipped past the computer revolution, providing only the occasional hard drive or blank CD-ROM discs.  It’s as if their target audience age dropped from 20 to 8.  Oh, they still had the occasional cables, cords, and adapters.  But those would be in the far back... behind the $5 remote-controlled helicopters.
Same with the office supply stores, but not to the extent that Radio Shack went to.  Yes, they would have at least half of their stores dedicated to actual office supplies.  Chairs and tables and folders and filing cabinets and all sorts of papers and cards and pencils and pens and desk goodies.  And, yes, they also have copiers and shredders and printers and printer ink.  In fact, when my mom’s brand-name printer needed ink, I’d have to pay Staples a visit, because all of the so-called “big name” stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart had no idea this particular kind of ink even existed.  (And we’re not talking some rare kind of ink or an outdated printer either!)
But what do you see when you walk through those doors?  First things right up front... cellphones and cellphone accessories.
Are you noticing a pattern here?
Let’s get brutally honest here... I’m not going to Staples or Radio Shack for a cellphone.  In fact, I’m not even thinking cellphones when it comes to those stores.  Do you?  It’s like going to McDonald’s for tofu and bean sprouts.
I understand why these stores would want to expand into cellphones... they were trying to compete against Wal-Mart and the other “big box” stores.  But they were doing it the wrong way.  Instead of highlighting what made them unique, they tried to be what they weren’t, and then wondered why people weren’t showing up.
We keep on hearing that the world of business is a simple matter of supply and demand.  But the truth is that there is a time and a place for both these things.  The “big box” stores are able to appeal to a wide clientele because that is what people see them being; an all-purpose super-general store.  But if your store appeals to a specific kind of “demand”, you can’t bring more people in by trying to provide a different kind of “supply”.  You do it by reminding people why your store is better than the “big box” competition.
And if you can’t do that, then all you’re really doing is just sending those clients right to those “big box” stores anyway.

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