Post-Modern Boutique Retail

"Do you have these in a size 40?" I asked the lady at the ________ store in the Westfield Mall. 

"No, they're not available in that size, unfortunately," she said with a sympathetic frown.

"These just came out though, right?" I asked to be sure. I had been waiting for the new season of Fall flats to arrive.

"Yes, just last week."

"And is it that you didn't get any of these in a size 40, or was it just that all your size 40 options sold out quickly?" I inquired.

"To be honest," the lady told me, "Sometimes they don't even bother sending out all the sizes to the retail chains anymore. Everything sells immediately online, and they only make a few in each size, so they don't always see the point in distributing to brick and mortar these days."

"Ain't that the truth!" I thought to myself.

I've become a highly-competent shopper in the women's fashion world over the past few years. I've learned what my wife likes and what sizes she wears so that I can surprise her every now and again with a nice gift. But the more I start to understand the way the fashion world works, the more I see the parallels in the booze business. You'd think buying a simple pair of shoes would be easy, especially from a designer with numerous boutiques across the country. The reality, however, is that the internet has changed the way fashion retail works, much like it has with distilled spirits. You might expect to walk into K&L and find that rare Bourbon you've been searching for among our stock, but the fact is that most of our collectable stuff gets poached online long before we can even put it out on the shelf. Retailers like us have become so accustomed to a large pool of online consumers that often we don't need to make space in the store—we simply load it into inventory and the internet takes care of the rest.

And it's not just the instant availability aspect that's upping the ante for competitive shoppers; the internet is also increasing the amount of interested buyers by spreading the marketing information more freely. I can't even imagine what it must be like for high-schoolers to throw parties these days. I remember wanting to invite about twenty people over when my parents went out of town during my sophomore year, and going out of my way to only tell a few friends the details. If you weren't careful you'd have the whole school show up on your front doorstep with cold twelve-packs and a street full of honking cars. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and dozens of other social media services, there are no more secrets. You can't quietly mention anything to anyone these days without the entire world knowing about it seconds later. The same thing goes for booze, and apparently for women's shoes.

You think no one knows about that local distillery down the road from your house? Think again. There are probably people in Hong Kong trying to get a bottle of their limited Spring release. You think that tiny little microbrew behind the local Safeway is just marketing its beer to the neighborhood? HA! There are probably twenty guys in Des Moines trying to order the remaining inventory via the brewery's website. Want those new ballet flats in size 40? So do hundreds of other women reading fashion blogs, Pinterest sites, and Instagram accounts about the hottest new shoes. It's a Catch 22 for enthusiasts these days. We like to Yelp about our favorite restaurants, but then we're mad when we can't get a table. We like to take photos of our newest outfits, but then we get annoyed when everyone's wearing the same thing. We like to brag about our latest whiskey acquisition, posting photos of the bottle on Facebook, but then we bitch about how good whiskey is getting harder to find. But you can't have it both ways.

If you like to post online information about whiskey, then you can't complain about whiskey's sudden popularity—because ultimately you're part of the problem! The more information we put online, the more people are going to discover our passion and our interests. The more that retailers put their inventory online for e-commerce, the less they'll need to rely on brick and mortar outlets. The less we rely on actual physical retail outlets, the harder it will be to get what you want because no one has to actually go to the store to buy what they're looking for; everything is just a few clicks away. 

You used to be able to get front row tickets for any concert if you got up earlier than your neighbor and waited in line at the local Ticketmaster outlet (sometimes people would even camp out overnight). Not anymore. Today the fastest internet connection wins that battle. Today's savvy shoppers are the ones who sit in front of a computer screen all day, not actually make the rounds to the local mall. All the really good stuff isn't there, anyway.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll