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Great news for analog shoppers!

Jun 18, 2007


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The New York Times reports that growth of online retailing has slowed. While this may be cause for gnashing of teeth and flogging of jejune security analysts and their ilk, who have for some time been trumpeting the end of life on shopping earth as we know it, I for one want to be among the first to hoist a flagon and offer a lusty "Huzzah."

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of buying things online. I shop at Amazon just about every week and not just for books new and old, but also for housewares, electronics and a whole bunch of other stuff. Everything I order arrives on time, in good shape, exactly as I wanted it. I love those guys. Long may they wave.

I also love EBay. You may know if you've read my stuff in Fortune, that I am and will always be an EBay addict. Last year I bid on and won more than 50 vintage guitars when a mere twenty or thirty might have sufficed. Most recently, I've been into watches. Love my EBay. May the road rise up to meet them as they go.

There's so much more out there to click on and adore. Alibris for books. Crate & Barrel for the home. I bank online. I pay my bills online. Hey, I even shop for food online at FreshDirect. Fabulous produce. So I'm no cringing Luddite creeping down the desolate Main Street of my city, looking for a place to buy a vinyl 45 and a second-hand cardigan from a consignment shop. I'm as digital as baby-faced investment bankers who don't know who Clapton is.

But me, when I hear that growth in online retailing will moderate to less than 10 percent annual sales growth by 2011, I say right on, hurrah, say hey and attaboy. And I will tell you why.

As much as I admire online bookstores, and find them incomparable in some respects, I like bookstores, too. Last month I visited one of the truly great ones in these United States -- Stacey's in downtown San Francisco. Outstanding selection of everything, graphic novels, magazines you never get anywhere else, hard-to-find literature and, of course, a full selection of Bing. Comfy chairs to read in. They host author's appearances that are attended by way more than the traditional guy with a pint of muscatel in a crinkled brown paper bag. It's a world in there. I have a friend who manages the place. I asked her how they were doing. "You know," she said. "Getting along. It's hard to compete." I hope Stacey's is able to hang in there until things kind of balance out between online and brick-and-mortar. I would hate to live in a world where the virtual annihilates the real. I don't think you want to live there either.

Don't you want to be able to hop in your car, drive to a store, try something on and buy it? When you want a camera, don't you want to touch it before you plop down that $500? Sure there's a lot of fun in ordering something and then waiting for it like a kid who just sent in his or her box tops. But what about that impulse buy? Isn't that a rush, too?

Every now and then I pass by an empty Tower Music. They're gone now. Dead and buried. In their place I generally expect to find one of two kinds of mercantile establishments, the only places that seem to be thriving right now: a bank or a super drugstore. This depresses me. I remember enjoying a good browse in my local Tower, the smell of it, the feeling of finding an actual CD that I could hold in my hands and curse while trying to strip off its shrink wrapping. I don't think this makes me a bewigged old-timer. There has to be room for both, don't you think?

In the Panglossian end of the day, what we just might have will be the best of all possible worlds - a lively marketplace, some online and some brick-and-mortar, with the digital driving traffic to the thing people want the most: a real, human interaction that results in the purchase of something they can take home and eat, read, plug in, watch or listen to.

So keep on growing, online retailers! Good luck to you! All the best! But forgive me if news indicates that your march across all civilized nations is reaching manageable levels, that there may be some actual, physical business entities standing when the day is done.

And hey - you pundits who always predict that one medium is about to extinguish all others? Next time shut up, why don't you?

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