The other day I entered a department store to buy a pair of shoes. The store had several stories which looked solely dedicated to clothes. Surely I would be able to find something that fits my needs—I went in, hoping to finish my task quickly in one round of ascension.
An hour later I got out of the building disappointed by the lack of variety in men’s shoes corner. It might be true that we buy a pair only once in a decade, but can’t they have something other than Merrell, Ecco, Clarks, Croc, or Timberland? They are available anywhere, even online.
I wandered around the street and found a half-dark grungy mom & pop store. That was what I was talking about; I bought a decent pair of truly local shoes. (I was, and still am, proud of supporting the local industry but otherwise it wasn’t a great success. The shoes contained a “patented” mechanism that “breathes air into the sole” to improve the cushion, which generated a large whooshing sound on each step. What a fraud. They could have differentiated the tones according to my weight shift so I could tap dance La Cucaracha on the street.)
A department store, or any large-scale shopping mall, used to be the magic castle that contained everything you could not find on the street or in the market—when I was a kid. But in recent memory, I haven’t had a genuine “surprise” moment inside a large outlet. It has become a large-scale showroom for known brands, and it has also copied each other’s tenants down to the layout (in fact, in many cases the brands control everything inside or even outside their zones such as Uniqlo).
The magic kingdom remains as shiny as ever, but nowadays you know exactly what you are going to get. It is no surprise that a cinema complex that shows the latest Hollywood blockbusters and/or the mighty combo of Starbucks/McDonalds is commonly attached to a mall. Everything is designed to offer predictable surprises.
On the other hand, the surviving small businesses on the streets are increasingly offering niche products to differentiate themselves from the big players. Even the aforementioned mom & pop stores offer exotic lineups (probably due to their inability to catch up with the latest models). Taking my bicycle/motorcycle and strolling down narrow streets have become my favorite activity. I catch at least one “finding” along the way, be it a café, accessory store, or a design house.
As mass-scale retailers increasingly need to justify huge initial investment and incurring maintenance, they depend more on “guaranteed” payback (known brands). Along the way, they stifle on their own weight, become conservative, and loses what made them precious in the first place: variety. As small-scale retailers increasingly need to find niche markets to survive in this dire economic situation, they focus more on acquiring long-term loyal customers by offering custom-tailored experience.
The trend is clearly pushing for small & niche. These days, when I walk through traditional department stores, I often find more number of clerks, many of them too eager, than customers, many of them detached. It is a haunted house experience where you get to escape dozens of scary hands that try to grab your attention (and money). After all, it is still an amusement park.
There might be a way for large retailers to survive, and in my opinion a good example of it is Taiwan’s Eslite Book Store. It combines the best of mass-scale retail (holding a large amount of books) and small-scale retail (inviting relatively unknown brands as tenants). Customers enter the building to “just chill out” because it is, in fact, a book store. Who doesn’t like that? Sophisticated and high-end boutique shops pop up here and there, which offers plenty of opportunities for joyful customers to open their wallet even more without knowing.
Evolve, otherwise you are all going to go extinct, I mutter every time I see a large white castle of retail (understandably many of them are Japanese).