What if Small Is the New Big?
By Derek Penwell
Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”
As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”
As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”
But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”
Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.
Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?
Here’s where a really good writer might offer the winning strategy, distilled to its essence: The thing that makes some small independent bookstores succeed in the land of the giants is __________.
But if there is a strategy, distilled to its essence, I don’t know what it is. Of course, I have some ideas—an emphasis on niche marketing, an appeal to customer service, a local community atmosphere. I imagine all those things, and probably some others, have contributed to the success of certain small independent bookstores.
What I want to focus on is the broader reality of bigness. For years the roadmap to success appeared to wend its way through Mega-ville. Go big or go home, right? Walmart. Microsoft. McDonalds. Google. The New York Yankees. Hollywood blockbusters. Page views. Empire.
In fact, so closely did success seem to correlate with bigness that—at least informally, if not explicitly—that’s gradually how success came to be defined. Biggest is best.
When Big Became Small
But the narrative of bigness has bumped up against some difficult realities. For one thing, a market that is increasingly fragmented by the vagaries of demographic diversity—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression … not to mention, the perennial issue of the range of individual taste—is difficult to dominate in a general way. When a culture is largely homogenous, generating broad appeal is much easier—you only need to get a couple of things right to saturate the market. When the market is fragmented, however, broad appeals are almost impossible, since whatever you offer will almost certainly exclude wide swaths of the population.
For another thing, with the increasing presence of the Internet, and it’s almost endless platforms for publishing and marketing, the signal to noise ratio is as high as it’s ever been. So, while it’s easier now than ever to get your message out, your message is one among millions. Being heard is both easier and more difficult, in that your message is easier to broadcast to a potential audience, but because there are so many voices, it can be more difficult to have your message actually heard. Time was you could craft a message, publicize it through traditional media, and have a reasonable chance of having it being heard by your intended audience. If you were quick enough, properly resourced, and sufficiently smart, you might run the table. Boom! Big. Nowadays, however, mass appeals untailored to highly specific audiences have difficulty making connections.
No question but that bigness still exists. And where it does, it’s really big … huge, in fact. (Think Apple, Walmart, Google, Comcast, Verizon, United Airlines). But it’s becoming rarer and rarer.
Small and local are also thriving (Think Farmers Markets, CSAs, Record Stores, Community Ministries). What we have less and less of is moderately big (Think Montgomery Ward, Circuit City, Newsweek, Borders, My Space). A large swath in the middle—including much that would traditionally have been called large—finds itself being squeezed on both ends.
So, maybe we need to rethink the endgame. Maybe our understanding of success needs recalibration.
- What if scrambling to be a monopoly is a waste of time?
- What if “mega” scares off more people than it attracts?
- What if, as Seth Godin has suggested, small is the new big?
I want to suggest that these are questions denominations and congregations should be considering just now.