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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 1999 /11 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Who's minding the store? Oh . . . never mind --
THE OTHER DAY a story appeared in this space about how the music industry is planning the next big entertainment-business phenomenon: allowing customers to build their own CDs, choosing which songs will appear on the CDs they carry out of the store. These custom-made CDs may hasten the day when the traditional record album -- with songs selected by the singers and the record companies -- is obsolete.

As intriguing as this is, the really significant part of this news is receiving secondary attention.

The reason music stores are planning to install interactive equipment to allow their customers to come in, choose their songs and have those songs put onto a blank CD is, according to one news report, because:

"(T)he shift to digital and interactive stores is necessary to keep customers coming to stores. (One music industry analyst) projects that 35 percent of music sales will be via the Internet in 2002."

So it's not just mass-produced CDs that are a potentially endangered species -- it's the very existence of music stores. Why travel to a store to shop when you can browse your computer screen and have the CDs delivered to you?

Evidently the big music-store chains, jittery about this, have devised the come-on-in-and-make-your-own-sundae CD idea as a way to try to assure that their doors will stay open well into the next century.

And it's not just the traditional music stores that are on edge -- the book industry is pouring millions and millions of dollars into Internet stores, as is the clothing industry, the electronics-equipment industry, the grocery industry. . . .

It's a little bit like when the mammoth discount stores started appearing on interstate highways near small towns, and killing off the old Main Street businesses; it's a little bit like when big bookstore chains began erecting superstores that small, local, independent booksellers found themselves having to compete with.

The problem wasn't that the Wal-Marts, the Targets, the multifloor chain bookstores, were bad -- the problem, for local merchants, was that they were so good. They were clean, well-designed, massively stocked with merchandise . . . people enjoyed shopping there, and the prices were low. If the huge stores had moved in and offered an inferior shopping experience, they would have flopped. The reason they caused so much anguish among older, smaller merchants was that they were pretty good at what they set out to do.

It didn't seem fair. And this next step -- the customer-grab by Internet stores -- could affect the texture of American life in ways even more profound than what the chain stores did to the mom-and-pop operations.

Because if people stop going to stores -- it does sound ridiculous, like some last-humans-on-Earth movie -- then the essence of the experience of day-to-day living in society will be transformed. No one is predicting that going to stores and shopping shoulder-to-shoulder with other people will be wiped out entirely -- but if shopping via computer becomes sufficiently easy and pleasurable, if few reasons remain for people to actually get into their cars and go to stores except on once-in-a-while occasions, then we may be in for a change like we haven't seen in many generations.

Already, you can feel the shift. Shopping via computer seems very foreign, until the first time you look around an Internet store on your computer screen -- and see that the selection is much bigger than you would find at a bricks-and-mortar store, that the information about the products is much more detailed and knowledgeable than you've been getting lately from human clerks, that the waiting time for someone to help you is zero (and no store employee refers to you as "you guys").

That's the strangest thing about computer-screen shopping -- the computers are so polite to their customers. Apparently it is easy to be human toward others when you're not a human.

It's the ultimate twist: "Cyberspace," which had the sound of starships and the infinite universe of the night sky, which conjured images of people rocketing through the cosmos in search of endless horizons, may end up being the thing that keeps people sitting at home, seldom going out, isolating themselves as they wait for the delivery man to bring them the book or the shirt they ordered in their darkened bedroom.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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