Tell me again: why do we need retailers?

Best Buy -- What's in a name?I’m having some difficulty understanding how retailers think they are going to stay in business.

Case in point: I traveled across Chicago tonight to Best Buy looking for two simple items that they should logically carry. One was a desktop tripod for a cell phone making it easier to take pictures with the built-in camera. The other was a pocket battery booster to give your cellphone extra life in case the battery runs down. Both are simple items, easily found on the Internet. But why not pick them up right now, while I’m thinking about it?

After a 20 minute trip to the store, I spent another 20 minutes with sales people explaining what I was looking for, then following them around while they looked for things and attempted to find other, presumably more senior, personnel. Complete failure. “We could order it for you and have it shipped to the store,” offered one young sales associate. Now if THAT isn’t the worst of both world’s, I don’t know what is.

In all fairness though, the 20 minute trip back from the store wasn’t wasted. While I sat on the train, I ordered the items I needed from two different Internet retailers at prices which, including the shipping, would have produced head-spinning margins for Best Buy.

And don’t think it’s just the folks at Best Buy who are dropping the ball. The week before, I read about a new best-seller book I thought I’d enjoy. I would have just ordered it from Amazon, but in a moment of enlightened self-interest, I thought “why not head down to my local Barnes and Noble and give them the business?” ┬áHere’s why:

Not wanting to wait in line for an assistant, I scoured the shelves and end-caps. Not finding it, I waited in line. “That’s funny,” he told me “I see that we have them on order but they don’t seem to be here.” No estimated due date, no nothing.

I need to update my model of the world. I always thought that if you wanted it NOW or you needed some help with your product selection, you went to your local retailer. If you just wanted the lowest price and the greatest assortment, you ordered from the web.

Every day the web becomes a fiercer and fiercer competitor; the selection is better, the pricing is better, the information about the product is better, and it’s easier to find things.

The only advantages to retail are that you can physically touch the product and you can create an experience around shopping for it. But for the most part, retailers have just stayed the same. They are just standing in the trash compactor as it closes around them.

So today, it would seem, you are better off ordering the things you need off the web. Retailers are just for…uh… See? That’s where I get stuck. Why do we need retailers?