Department stores and supermarkets, the Amazons of their days, didn’t kill small retail. They were not winner-takes-all models. They did kill people who couldn’t match their service, selection and price, and were simply end-points to a logistics chain out-competed by a more efficient end-point. But one thing one I saw growing up in South London as supermarkets deployed was that small food shops tended to disappear, and then re-appear in new incarnations, providing service, curation and selection that supermarkets themselves couldn’t match, for people willing to search them out and of course pay the premium, and where there was the density to support this. They didn’t scale – they didn’t turn into chains of 30 artisanal butchers – but they often prospered. One saw something similar with bookshops: Waterstones put many out of business, but many also got created (just before Amazon took 25% off the top of the market, of course).
This in turn reminds me of a story in the New York Times, many years ago, about small Japanese shops who wanted only word-of-mouth customers and so made themselves hard to find (even by Japanese standards). In particular, there was one denim shop in a back-alley of Tokyo called ‘Not Found’ – so as to be ungooglable. One can call this curation, or hipsterdom, or just a Veblen good. But in the past, such things were always geographically constrained – you had to live in a big city (while chain retail took homogenized versions of the same thing to everyone). I wonder, as ecommerce matures, how much will be carved out into exactly the kind of spectrum of large and small retail beyond the big aggregators, and how far this removal of geographic constraint might make it easier rather than harder for them to take sales from the giants, in part by removing that density problem. That is, there might be a lot more lists, they might be hard to find, and not be part of some global aggregator, and that might be OK.