Retail: Pissing Me Off Since The Rise of Amazon

What’s with retail these days?

Two weeks ago, I needed a specific audio patch cable — a 3.5mm TRRS cord to link my stereo mixer with my Surface Pro. The TRRS standard, which works with single-jack inputs blending stereo audio with a microphone, has been the de facto standard for iProducts as well as newer smartphones and tablets. It’s distinguished from other 3.5mm connectors by virtue of having three, instead of one or two, bands on the jack. Do you think Best Buy carries them? Nope — only online, although the company is happy to stock about a dozen identical versions of the TRS (two-band) patch cables by a dozen different manufacturers. Neither Radio Shack nor Staples had them, either. A common cord, using common plugs, used by a wide array of popular consumer electronics, is only available online. Despite that its less useful offspring is carried in superabundance. Couldn’t we maybe have just eight TRS plugs on the shelf, with four TRRS offerings? Why must it be 12-0?

This weekend, I wanted two books. One, an overview of the R statistical programming language, and the other, a product manual for the current version of SAS and its Enterprise Guide. I need them for my new job. After having visited both of the Barnes and Noble stores in Grand Rapids, as well as Schuler Books and Music, what did I find? If you guessed “nothing,” congrats! These retailers are happy to stack 20 different iterations of the same title — how many “Introduction to Photoshop” books does the world need, anyway? — but zero copies of somewhat rarer books.

I know, I know — just go to Amazon. Which is what I’ll have to do. But I remember a time when stores carried more diverse product offerings. Heck, I remember the old days, before Menards and Home Depot, when general-merchandise stores like Meijer had robust hardware departments with plywood sheets, shingles, custom-cut glass, 2x4s and the like. Now, the average Meijer may have two or three rows of generic tools and fasteners in its “hardware” section. And don’t get me started on the wonder that was Sears, Roebuck or Whitmark or Montgomery Ward. Or even Radio Shack, back when they sold more than cell phones.

It seems like the widespread adoption of online shopping has freed bricks-and-mortar retailers from carrying products that have a slower turnover rate. So you end up with bookstores that carry two dozen different titles about how to use Excel but no titles about using R, SAS, SPSS, Stata, Minitab, etc. Titles intended for the lowest common denominator move faster than rarer or more obscure titles, so bookstores shelve the faster-selling product. Thus, the rarer or more obscure your need, the less likely it is that you’ll find it locally — a distressing change from the pre-Amazon/pre-eBay days.

Sometimes I miss the pre-Internet world. At least then, when I wanted something, I could buy it in a store and take it home the same day I wanted it.