Monday, March 14, 2011

American Society's Lack of Digital Ethics - The Death of Brick and Mortar stores?

Some of us can remember before the World Wide Web (that's what www stands for, for those who didn't know). There was Prodigy, Compuserve and one other I forget. They were not connected. Then suddenly, www appeared and our lives began changing - more and more rapidly. The world shrank quicker and quicker as the web expanded. But unfortunately laws and ethics did not keep up. Today laws concerning the digital life are woefully behind the times and so are ethics. 
Today brick and mortar stores are rapidly becoming the showcase for on-line stores. Sometimes brick and mortar stores and on-line stores complement each other but other times they stand opposed to each other. 
In the case of banks, there is no "physical product" there are only services - loans, checking accounts, ATM cards, which do have a physical aspect but in the end they are non-physical services. As services, brick and mortar can compete effectively with on-line banks. On-line service can point to brick and mortar operations as needed and can reduce the need for brick and mortar without eliminating them.
Where physical products are involved, brick and mortar are at a disadvantage unless America develops a "digital ethic". Some examples: 
A) E-Readers did not sink Borders; the lack of American Digital Ethics was the larger player. Borders had various problems and all contributed to their bankruptcy and wherever the future takes them but e-readers were only a small part of the problem. The bigger issue they and many other face is the lack of a digital ethic in America. Witness the person who comes in with a Kindle e-reader, which they use because they have poor eyesight and can enlarge the print with his e-reader. They won't be able to buy or download any books from Borders because the Kindle does not use the widely accepted "e-Pub" standard. (at the present, Kindles can only download from Amazon, they cannot read the more widespread standard of "e-pub" books. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Apple all use e-pub.). The person comes in asking questions and discussing how they hate shopping on-line for books. They like to look at the cover colors and turn the pages. (On-line stores offer only limited browsing of books.) The store clerks assists them and then they leave the store to go home and buy their books on line. E-books are cheaper because they don't require the facilities, space, and personnel support that brick and mortar books require. For e-books, you simply add another hard drive to the computer network and voila, more e-books are available. And the extra hard drives don't even have to be in the same location, spare hard drive space from other locations can be used. 
B) Electronics stores (especially camera stores) suffer the same issue. Go to any local electronics place, especially one that specializes in digital cameras. People come in and try out the cameras, examine the size of the bags and the layout of the pockets inside. And when their decision is made, they go home and buy the same product on-line at one of the well-known on-line stores. (If you are a camera person, you know the two I have in mind.) Electronic departments in stores like Target and Wal-Mart are not as aware of this as their workers tend to not have the personal investment in the store that "mom and pop" local stores have. That and they tend to stock the lower price end of products. The specialty stores will have the higher quality products. (Try buying a 200-400mm zoom lens for a digital camera at the aforementioned stores and you will see what I mean.) One large photo chain told me they do not want people browsing Brick and Mortar and then coming to them, they consider it unethical. Nice to see some integrity. That's why I use them. But when I have been in a brick and mortar camera store I always try to buy something to justify my time there. 
C) Car Dealers are just beginning to experience this ethical dilemma. A person comes in and test-drives a vehicle. They ask all sorts of questions. They come back and test drive some more. They come back with their spouses and test drive again. Then they go home and send out emails to a three state area soliciting prices on the vehicle of their choice. Then the dealer with a small building, little overhead, maybe only one salesperson, and one or two mechanics gets the bid with his low price. He doesn't worry about a long-term relationship with the customer, they live so far away they will probably never come back. If there are any issues with the vehicle, the customer will most likely be on the doorstep of the dealer they test drove first thing with a loud complain about service. The customer should at least include the test drive dealership on their email list. 
Is it unreasonable to expect people to spend in stores they shop in and use the resources of (If you operate a McDonald's think of the people that come in and use the restrooms and leave without buying food.)? No! Germany has an ethic that when I was last there that would address this issue. If you want to see an irritate store clerk, go in and ask a lot of questions about products in their store and then walk out without buying anything. They don't do that but the American visitors do. They don't mind you looking but if you take up their time, they expect you to buy something. 
Brick & Mortar stores cannot survive being a showcase for on-line stores. If the trend continues, we can simply close down the malls and turn them into on-line showcases with only one of each item for sale. You can see the color and inspect the texture but then you have to order from the on-line store at the local kiosk that is sure to be there and wait for delivery. 
Brick and mortar stores operate with facilities designed to make the shopping experience enjoyable and sale staffs that when trained properly can offer assistance finding the right items and offer recommendations.  (Remember buying a printer for your computer and finding out they didn't include the cable to connect to the computer?) 
Bottom line, if you shop at a brick and mortar, buy something while you are there. 


  1. I agree with your comments 100%. There is u-tube video out there called(I think) "Don't be an i-phoney". I know I'm only one person but I refuse to buy anything from Amazon. I do my research online but if I want to utilize a stores knowledge I feel obligated to buy something from them. Otherwise the next time I need their expertise they might not be there. Too many people need to have their moral compass adjusted. Thanks

  2. Perhaps the bigger problem is lazy business owners, such as delivery policies from teh 1950s that assume the wife is home all day. Or parts departments that only want to sell to tradespeople, not to individual customers. How about ethics of B&M stores that offer much cheaper prices on their web site, but don't match it in the store? having just recently purchased a new car, I can tell you the majority have zero on-line savvy. Most ignored reading my request on a model and features, and said "come in an talk". A couple offered prices that were higher than the same vehicle in the newspaper ad. So don't talk ethics to me.

  3. @ Frank - I agree with business owners being part of the economic problem and yes many don't have a clue about digital life. As to the ethics of B&M having lower prices on the web sites compared to their B&M stores, I have mixed feelings. One could say that they are passing along their savings of a web operation to their web customers but at the same time they are competing against themselves. (Some stores keep their web and B&M operations completely separate!!) The original post here was in response to Borders books closing their stores over most of America (later to become all stores). They did have different prices on the web than in the store and customers were frustrated to see a price advertised and walk in the store and not get it. The overhead of a B&M is higher than a web operation (if nothing else, personnel and air conditioning to name a few things) and thus prices will be higher. Somehow the answer is perhaps to find a way to subsidize the B&M with the Web operation allowing the business to pass some of the savings of a web operation onto the customer and part of the savings to lower the price of the store merchandise to be equal with the web site prices. Similar to the way AT&T used to subsidize local service prices with long distance operations.

    I sympathize with you on the car buying but that isn't so much a matter of ethics as it is simple ignorance and bad attitude. I sent emails out to dealers asking for prices with a breakdown the cost and you would think they were illiterate as they were unable to read and understand what I considered a simple request. The dealer that got my business was not only the lowest price but had done exactly what I had asked. (A handful of others did also). One dealer called my home alter and when my wife told him I had already bought the car, HE GOT MAD and said I hadn't given him a chance. In reality I had recontacted the top 5 or 6 dealers and let them know that they had good prices but didn't have the best price. So Mr. MAd had had his chance and failed the opportunity. // Dealers don't like to give out prices as they know they are dealing with savy consumers. They would much rather "get you in" where they can ply their tricks on you. Had a dealer that I walked into in Tucson Arizona and thought I would have to call the police to get the keys to my car back.