What do Amazon, Apple, Best Buy and old catalog showrooms have in common? | Bill McLoughlin

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In the all old is new category, Best Buy is testing a new format of 5,000 square feet outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, featuring neater assortments and a checkout process reminiscent of the catalog showrooms of the 80s and 90s.

For those of you who are too young to remember retailers like Service Merchandise or Consumers Distributing, showroom catalog once numbered in the thousands and were major players in the RTA furniture, small appliances, and housewares businesses. In their heyday, they were a faster and cheaper way to get brand name durable goods at discounted prices.

The amount of merchandise physically displayed varied, but the essence of the concept was that consumers could view a small selection of products on display and access a larger selection through catalogs placed on a counter inside the store. After placing an order, consumers waited for their purchase to come out of the back store.

The concept was eventually overtaken by the ability of discounters like Walmart, Target, etc., to offer comparable product selections in a more convenient cash-and-carry format. Rather than waiting once to place an order and a second time for it to be delivered in front of the store, consumers preferred to help themselves to the merchandise and check out quickly.

The new Best Buy format, like many new test designs, minimizes (but doesn’t completely eliminate) the need for human interaction when making a purchase. See a product you want? Scan its QR code and someone will pick it up for you to buy. No catalog, but the expectation is the same.

A recent report on the format compared Best Buy’s new test format with Apple stores, with the Geek Squad service. Anyone who has purchased an Apple store might wonder why anyone would try to replicate that experience.

Want to buy an iPhone? You need to make an appointment and someone will be with you in 45 minutes. Know which model you want and just want to make a purchase? Still need an appointment. Just want one of the dozen boxes of headphones stacked on the shelf? Still need an appointment.

If there’s one thing you learn from studying the history of retail, it’s that evolution is always in the direction of convenience.

In its early days, Sears killed thousands of local retailers with its huge catalog that delivered almost anything, almost anywhere. It was the Amazon of its time, making home shopping as convenient as the technology of the day allowed.

Department stores in their day offered superior convenience, killing downtown merchants with massive assortments and even more massive parking lots in malls. For the generation that popularized drive-ins, drive-ins, motels and station wagons, it was like retail catnip.

Amazon has reached a frightening scale by providing the most convenient shopping experience in human history.

Convenience is certainly not the only factor that attracts consumers to a retail format. But as the retail industry continues to explore new ways to maintain the brick-and-mortar momentum, it’s worth remembering that no one has ever built a volume business by making it harder, more slower or more difficult for a consumer to get what they want.

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