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Hollowed-Out Retail in the US

After living away from the US for so long, lots of things strike me as interesting every day. One thing I’ve noticed recently is what I’m calling “hollowed-out” retail: retail stores have a limited selection of merchandise, suggesting that customers purchase any unusual items on-line.

This appears to makes economic sense: stock only the most popular items in store, and keep a single warehouse for all the oddball stuff, which can be ordered via the Internet. However, this can be really problematic for some things, such as electronic parts! At ITP, we need access to a variety of electronic parts. Most of these can only be ordered on-line. This means you need a US-based credit card, which is a handicap for me, and for several of the international students. Moreover, it makes browsing almost impossible – you have to guess, based on tiny photos, if something will work for you. Also, you have to make fairly large orders, otherwise the shipping is prohibitive. This means, for example, that ordering small amounts of cable adapters or connectors is prohibitively expensive.

In contrast, Tokyo’s Akihabara (the electronic district) is fully stocked with everything, either through megastores or mini-malls full of specialists, and it is possible to handle merchandise, and pay with cash. It is not uncommon to see schoolchildren poking around, finding parts they need for electronics projects, and buying just what they need. They don’t have credit cards, so on-line is not an option. Also, the storekeepers are generally specialists in what they carry, and are often helping customers.

I wonder what this will do long-term to US consumer’s taste, when retail stores only stock a small range of the most popular items. Ironically, Japan has a chain of stores based on this premise, Ranking Ranqueen, which only carries the top 5 or 10 products in a series of categories, ie top 10 CDs, top 10 books, top 10 cosmetics, top 10 snacks, etc.

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