A comment on my Walmart post below reminded me of a grouse I’ve been nursing for some time. One thing about big stores is that they could offer a really wide variety of merchandise, and having failed to find somewhat specialized photographic items in the small neighborhood camera stores that used to be the only way this equipment was sold in France, I am a great admirer of places like B&H Photo. B&H, I should mention, is not just a web address with a warehouse you can’t actually go in to; they have a real store with everything out to pick up and mess with. Of course this store is in New York, not where you probably are, but places like it are one reason cities like New York are good places to live. The Bay Area has four serious photography retailers that I know of, and one is even in Berkeley.
However, the potential variety of inventory in most big stores is an illusion, and the less specialized they are the more this is true. Take CompUSA, which does have a presence near you, and many thousand square feet of it. CompUSA has a computer that watches sales like a hawk, and ruthlessly prunes slow-moving items, so the large rack of cables actually has no specialized or rare ones, but twenty hooks with the same five fast movers, the cables you already have two or three of . If you want something the least bit arcane, you are out of luck, because the maximum straight-face selling price of a special item does not capture its real value to the customer. I believe CompUSA no longer stocks any SCSI cables in its stores at all, though it has every known brand of blank CD in five different package sizes each.
The other day, I was in OSH, a local chain of really big hardware stores recently bought by Sears, which brought its wonderful inventory-optimizing computer. What I wanted was a 6×1 x 6mm socket head metric set screw, not really such a specialized item given how much equipment is metric. It’s not a fine-thread-series set screw, and not extra-teeny for inside a camera nor really enormous for your pet bulldozer.
OSH no longer has any metric set screws, though it did three years ago. It has a zillion light bulbs, including many compact fluorescents that differ only in brand and details of shape, but (for another example) no dimmable fluorescents. Dimmable is a meaningful and useful feature for this item; slightly-more-curled-up tube is not.
So I went to my downtown Ace Hardware store, which is incidentally two blocks from a rapid transit station. Ace has seriously damaged the independent hardware stores that have joined their system, but they haven’t completely ruined them. This store is a tenth the size of OSH and doesn’t sell any lawn furniture at all, but they had a couple of drawers of metric set screws in many sizes including the one I needed. Hardware stores are among my personal holy places from early years, so I’m especially aware of this problem and have watched it over the years. MBAs in suits who think a torque wrench is for loosening torques have taken over, with no understanding that the large inventory of things you only need once in a long while is what brings you in to buy a bunch of other standard stuff: I went out of Ace with my 39c set screw – and a small bag with glue, light bulbs, and a garden hose nozzle.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of the variety big stores offer is spurious, items that differ only in superficial and trivial aspects (unlike the difference between a 6mm and a 10-32 set screw, which is critical even though they look pretty much alike to the kid in the suit from corporate). There’s also good evidence that we think we value choice and options a lot more than we really do, an issue explored by Barry Schwartz in his wonderful book, The Paradox of Choice.
I should also note, on the dehumanizing theme of my earlier post, that a consequence of the relentless drive for low money prices of big stores has been the scarcity, stupefaction, ignorance, and demotivation of the help. I’ve known more about most hardware items than the clerks for decades, and I don’t mind that, but now I have to deal with people in Home Depot who cannot direct me anywhere because they don’t even know the names of things, never mind what they are good for, and Home Depot is actually better on this score than most. Actually, I think the change from counter-only retail (what you still find at a plumbing supply store or W.W. Grainger) to self-service with everything out to look at is progress in home and hardware stores, because there’s always cool new stuff available that you wouldn’t know to ask for if it weren’t displayed next to the standard model. But I don’t think it’s improved my life that I usually go to Home Depot and and don’t exchange a single word with a human being (except, sometimes, the clerk who kicks the automatic self-checkout machine with the idiot recorded smiley voice, when it can’t read a code or is paralyzed by an “unexpected item in bagging area”).
The value of the ample choice big stores supposedly provide is also undercut by an infuriating trend to boutiquizing, especially in clothing stores. I went to Macy’s with my daughter looking for shoes recently, and she had a fairly good idea of the style and color she wanted. One would expect the various makers’ versions of a black closed-toe flat with to be arranged for easy comparison, but one would be wrong, even though that is precisely the value a retailer adds to wholesale merchandise. Instead, the shoes were arranged by brand, so we had to go to a dozen different tables to make the obvious comparison, never quite sure if we had seen them all. I asked her about this, and she said she never went looking for “La Donnaccia shoes in whatever style”. French bookstores used to shelve their books by publisher, an infurating practice that maximizes staff and wholesaler convenience at the expense of the customer (does anyone go to the store to find “something from Gallimard”?), and I thought it was one of those quaint dumb things foreigners did out of mindless habit, but apparently it’s catching.
I never met a payroll and I’ve never run a business. I know the inexorable incentives of the market drive competing merchants to sell us an optimal package of goods and services, and I’m not any kind of communist; I really like markets. But I’m not so sure retailers really know what they’re doing, and I also believe that externalities and non-market values exist, and that we should be a lot more creative and responsible as a society in attending to them.