Superstore Syndrome

Published on 12/20/2010

Have you noticed how sparse the selection seems to be in the giant suburban bookstore chains lately? How the office-supply superstores seem to carry ever-larger quantities of the same three kinds of legal pad? Do you remember a time when those enormous stores seemed to carry everything, no matter how obscure? What happened?

You’re seeing the effects of Superstore Syndrome, the inevitable course of a suburban superstore’s existence, and one of the characteristic diseases of consumerism.

The cycle begins when the superstore first moves into an area. Let’s say you’re opening a giant book chain. There are already bookstores in the area with loyal customers. How are you going to lure away that loyal customer base? Price is one thing you can try, but your best bet is probably selection. People will come to your gigantic store because you have all the books in the world. They may still buy mostly bestsellers, but they’ll love just knowing that they can come here for Frontinus in the original Latin the next time they happen to need him.

And it works. One by one, the little neighborhood bookstores close as their customers desert them for your enticingly comprehensive selection. You dominate the book market. You’re making money hand over fist as the bestsellers fly out the door, with an occasional obscurity joining them to break up the monotony.

Onward! Ten years have passed. The chain of book superstores has flourished and been bought up by a giant international conglomerate. But a brief economic downturn eats into profits. One quarter even shows a loss. In a panic, the parent company begins to look at the numbers very closely. Why, one uncommonly bright young executive demands, are we stocking these Loeb Classics when each store sells only about a dozen each year? Every square foot of shelf space must be accounted for, and these things are wasting valuable space that could be given over to something really profitable, like self-help books. Everybody buys self-help books.

So the superstore begins to cut back on selection. And at first all goes well. Now the superstore doesn’t really have any more of a selection than the neighborhood bookstores used to have, but since there are no more neighborhood bookstores that’s not so much of a problem. But gradually shoppers begin to realize that the superstore just isn’t fun anymore. There are still acres of books, but it seems as though the’re all the same books. And if bestsellers are the only books you stock—well, we can get those at Kmart. Why should we bother coming to your bookstore?

Where does that leave the book-shopper who’s looking for Frontinus? It sends him back to the city, the natural home of everything unusual, nonstandard, interesting. In the city he can find stores that thrive on the customers left behind and rejected by the superstores, because in the city there are enough of those people to support a store with unusual stock. The superstore begins to struggle, and blames changing economic conditions. The neighborhood specialty shop begins to thrive, and can thank the management of the superstore.

An update, July 1, 2013: Since this was written two and a half years ago, all but one of the big book superstore chains have disappeared, and in the city of Pittsburgh there has been a much-discussed trend toward small independent bookstores.

Original comments:

12/26/2010: Paul Rodriguez says:
Your account of the decay of the superstore is persuasive but the notion that people resort to the city for obscure books surprises me. What numbers I have seen, and my personal observation, suggest that when the superstore cannot satisfy, Amazon does.

12/27/2010: CB says:
You’re quite right, of course, when someone is looking for something specific. It’s the pleasure of browsing among obscure books that I was thinking of, and I muddled the two ideas a bit.

09/12/2012: Sean says:
Sir, while I find the idea presented here compelling, do you have any data to back up this claim of diminishing selection in big-box stores? I’d like to believe it, but it seems like a difficult claim to make simply from anecdotal observation.