By Harry McCracken | Friday, April 10, 2009 at 4:27 pm
Here’s a picture which I snapped last week on San Francisco’s Market Street: A Virgin Megastore which, like all remaining U.S. locations, is going out of business–across the street from one of the largest Apple Stores, which seems to be doing okay. The Virgin store mostly sells content on shiny discs; the Apple Store mostly sells devices for consuming content, no shiny discs involved.
I remember looking forward to the opening of this Virgin location as the building that contains it went up in 1995. (Trivia: The other original tenant was that 1990s relic, Planet Hollywood.) Even then, the days of big music/movie stores like Virgin Megastores were beginning to come to an end: Amazon.com also opened its (online) doors in 1995. Virgin sold its wares at list price or close to it, as you might expect of a business that had to pay for tens of thousands of square feet of primo real estate in some of the country’s most prestigious shopping districts. Amazon, from the start, sold stuff at the sort of deep discounts that a company without any retail footage at all can manage.
Even last week, weeks into the Virgin store’s liquidation, it was a poster child for why the retailing of content is a business that’s winding down. DVDs and CDs had been marked down by thirty percent–a sharp cut by Virgin standards, but still far short of typical Amazon discounts. And Amazon will ship for free. Which makes the only compelling reason to buy at Virgin the pleasure of browsing items in a real store (which I confess I still like) and the elimination of having to wait for an Amazon box to show up on your doorstep.
But it’s not discs shipped out in Amazon boxes that will render Virgin and all of its physical-world competitors irrelevant long term–it’s downloads and streams of the sort that Apple and Amazon, among others, are doing a job of embracing. It’s just going to be a few years until there are essentially no music and movie stores left except for independent ones that soldier on for reasons that go beyond mere profit. (The Bay Area is fortunate to have both Amoeba and Rasputin–long may they wave.)
Bookstores are going to take longer to vanish, but they’re going to get hit hard too, I’m sure. I’m not ready for e-readers to take over, but if there are still two nationwide book-centric merchants with gigantic stores in 2019, I’ll be surprised. I’m also assuming video game stores will be part of history by then, as will in-person DVD rental (hey, it’s not clear Blockbuster will make it to 2010). And as for good old fashioned newsstands? Well, I still like ’em, but they already give me a plessantly nostalgic feel.
Let’s end this with a T-Poll: