From Baking Powder & Cardboard to Amazon

The Washington Post: “A&P Baking Powder was an important product in the history of retailing,” Marc Levinson wrote in The Great A&P, a history of the company and grocery stores. “With it, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, and many of its competitors, began a transition from being tea merchants to being grocers. It was a transition that would dramatically change Americans’ daily lives.”

“The branding of baking powder was important because most merchants back then were just essentially selling, as Levinson wrote, ‘generic products indistinguishable from what was for sale down the street.’ And in selling their powder in a tin, the owners were ahead in another important way — packaging.”

“The invention of the cardboard box changed everything. The company could now make, brand and sell its own condensed milk, butter, spices — just about any staple of the kitchen … There was difficult, transformative work ahead. The company needed to upend an entire culture of shopping built around neighborhood stores … A&P’s business model began to sound a lot like the one pursued by its retail descendants — Walmart and Amazon … Amazon’s tea was books. Then it diversified.”


‘Amazon Charts’ Re-Define ‘Best Seller’

The New York Times: Amazon now tracks “not only the top-selling digital and print books on Amazon, but the ones that customers spend the most time reading … With its lists, Amazon aims to redefine the notion of a best seller, expanding it to include books that are ‘borrowed’ from its e-book subscription service, and ones that are streamed on Audible. As a result, the lists give increased visibility to books that might not typically appear on other best-seller lists.”

“All of Amazon’s acquisitions and new features are having a cumulative effect, allowing the company to draw on its vast customer base and troves of data to discover what is popular, and return that information to customers, creating a lucrative feedback loop … Crowdsourcing and data mining are also driving the company’s approach to its bookstores, which act as showcases for books popular with customers on the site. While the stores have traditional categories, like fiction, nonfiction and travel, the most eye-catching shelves feature categories culled from Amazon’s customer data.”

“The first thing customers see when they walk into the store is a large display table, labeled Highly Rated, which includes books with an average rating of 4.8 stars or higher on a scale of 5 … Another display case, labeled Page-Turners, features books that people finish reading on their Kindle in fewer than three days … Another section features the most ‘wished for’ books from Amazon’s website … The books are all displayed face out. Under each book is a card with the average customer rating, the number of reviews and a featured review from an Amazon reader. Displaying the full cover of each book mimics the visual look of Amazon’s website, and might lure customers to unfamiliar titles.”


Michael Ruhlman & The American Grocery

The Wall Street Journal: “Is there any place more American than the supermarket? Forget the airport and the voting booth; for nearly a century, the one-stop shop has remained a temple of consumerism, not to mention our particular form of consumerist anxiety … In Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America” Michael Ruhlman focuses on “his beloved hometown supermarket, Heinen’s Grocery Store, a Cleveland-based chain with 23 locations in Ohio and Illinois. Joe Heinen opened the first one in 1933, three years after Michael Cullen launched ‘the first true supermarket,’ in Mr. Ruhlman’s designation: King Kullen in Queens, N.Y. Heinen, like Cullen, stockpiled meat, seafood, dairy, produce and groceries, often at a discount, under a single roof. (King Kullen’s slogan was ‘Pile it high. Sell it low.’)”

“There are now 38,000 grocery stores in America, some as large as 90,000 square feet. Heinen’s has annual sales of some $600 million—on a margin of only 1.25% to 1.5%, typical of the industry. ‘You do sales of half a billion dollars,’ a Heinen’s executive notes to Mr. Ruhlman, “and you only have profit of $5 million—what kind of a business is that?'”

Now the best grocery stores compete in a crowded marketplace by combining all of the above while becoming obligatory shopping, and even tourist, destinations. Wegmans, an East Coast chain frequently named America’s top grocery, and Central Market, an upscale offshoot of Texas’ H-E-B … have generated the kind of fervent fan bases once limited to sports franchises.” However: “Jeff Heinen fears that the supermarket will eventually go the way of the suburban shopping mall. ‘We’ll be prepared food and specialty products,’ he tells Mr. Ruhlman. Everything else, all those center-aisle products, in his estimation, will be delivered via Amazon.”


Book Capella: Library as Luxury Showroom

The Guardian: “Tapestries, leather armchairs, candelabras, sculpted woodwork and figures of the apostles: Book Capella, a newly built, gothic-inspired library in central St Petersburg, is complete with all the expected luxuries of an ancient athenaeum – and a price tag to match. To enjoy the library’s collection and atmosphere, you have to pay a ticket of just under £100 for a four-hour reading session – a markedly different experience to the free access readers can enjoy in Russia’s public libraries.”

“All the books date from between the 16th and 19th centuries and are displayed in thematic rooms with names including The Book of Wars and The Book of Travels. Its motto is a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined paradise as a library’.”

“However, while Book Capella proclaims its motto to be Borges’s heavenly vision, the space appears to be less library, and something more akin to a luxury showroom.” Project director Irina Khoteshova comments: “One hundred pounds per visit is certainly not a low price, but it is less expensive than tickets to the opera or ballet. People aren’t really surprised by the price itself. They are surprised that it’s the price for a visit to a library … Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books.”


The Happiness Effect: The Dark Side of Social Media

From a review of The Happiness Effect, by Donna Freitas, in The Wall Street Journal: “The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk … is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their ‘brands.’ This imperative then creates a vicious circle.” Freitas writes: “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time.”

“Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness … Yet avoiding social media is almost impossible; professors, for instance, create discussion groups on Facebook. So the beast must be mollified and a ‘personal brand’ maintained: that of a studious yet social person who does the right activities and holds the right opinions. ‘Many students have begun to see what they post (on Facebook, especially) as a chore—a homework assignment to build a happy facade,’ Ms. Freitas reports.”

“Some of her interviews contain real gems … One young man tells her that he doesn’t think his generation is any more self-centered or self-obsessed than any other … ‘Everybody wants to be noticed,’ he says. ‘Everybody likes feeling approval. They all like it when other people like them.’ Anyone who has posted a photo on Instagram and then checked 10 times over the next two hours to count the number of ‘likes’ … knows this feeling.”


Quote of the Day: Derek Thompson

“We want to live in a world where originality constantly wins and the best stuff constantly wins. But instead, we live in a somewhat arbitrary world where people just want that which is ultimately familiar and it’s the companies which own distribution power who have the capacity to dictate popularity.” – Derek Thompson, author, Hit Makers, quoted on Vox.


Privacy: Losing Battle or Lost Cause?

Frank Rose: In ‘The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, and Define Your Power,’ Joseph Turow shows shopping today to be an exercise in unwitting self-revelation—and not only online. Carry a smartphone? Thanks to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, downloadable apps and mobile wallets, it’s broadcasting your presence—and probably your name, email address, purchasing history, social contacts and ‘likes’ as well—to stores you walk into or even pass by. Ads might not yet be calling out to you by name, but they certainly know who you are and where.”

“Andreas Weigend’s ‘Data for the People: How to Make Our Post-Privacy Economy Work for You’ takes a different tack. Instead of advocating for a 20th-century concept of privacy, Mr. Weigend, the former chief scientist at Amazon, states bluntly that we have entered a new era and challenges us to respond.”

“The author makes a strong case for what we need—the right to amend or blur the data that pertains to us, the freedom to experiment with it and take it with us to other sites and services, and the ability to insist that data refineries be clear about how they’re using our information. Unfortunately, he’s better at enumerating these rights than at explaining how we can assert them.”


Printed Books Are Not Beaten to a Pulp

Gallup: “Despite the abundance of digital diversions vying for their time and attention, most Americans are still reading books. In fact, they are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were when Gallup last asked this question in 2002 — before smartphones, Facebook or Twitter became ubiquitous. More than one in three (35%) appear to be heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year, while close to half (48%) read between one and 10 and just 16% read none.”

“The number of Americans who say they read no books in the past year has doubled since the first time Gallup asked this in 1978, from 8% then to 16% now, but has been fairly steady near the current level since 1990 … Although the survey did not track the types of books that Americans read by age group, book reading in general is fairly similar by age group among U.S. adults. It is a bit more prevalent among the oldest and youngest age groups than among those in the middle years.”

“With the advent of e-readers and tablets in the past decade, some futurists predicted the imminent extinction of printed books … However, this prophecy appears to be far from true — so far. Among those who say they read at least one book last year, the vast majority say they most often read printed books, at 73%. About one in five most often read electronic books, while only 6% mostly experienced books in audio form.”


Berlin Bookstores: Retail Beyond the ‘Amazone’

Deutsche Welle: “Visitors to Hundt, Hammer, Stein bookstore in Berlin’s central Mitte district are greeted by signs reading ‘you are leaving the Amazone’ and ‘leave your algorithm, browse offline,’ before descending stairs into a cozy book basement that features a finely curated selection of both German and English literature. Owner Kurt von Hammerstein says with some glee that the big chains that decimated indie booksellers in the 1990s are now struggling to compete with Amazon on mass market titles, forcing them to shut down outlets across Germany. This has left fertile ground for the innovative indie bookseller.”

“Opened in 2004, Hundt, Hammer, Stein is one of the oldest stores in its street, and survives in large part through customer loyalty, but also political awareness. Hammerstein says that ‘a very high critical mass” of concerned Berliners refuse to support sellers like Amazon that are perceived to underpay workers while dodging taxes’.”

“This loyalty should extend to authors, notes Maria-Christina Piwowarski, the manager of Ocelot, a vast book emporium cum cafe and reading lounge that opened in 2012. In February this year she wrote an infamous online ‘rant,’ as she calls it, about authors who link their works to Amazon rather than the bookstores who actually promote them. She also opined that by offering ‘personal recommendations’ and ‘direct conversations with customers,’ that authentic booksellers should not view Amazon’s ‘uninspired algorithms’ as true competition.”


Retail Temples: Rainbows, Forests & Books

The New York Times offers a tour of some of the world’s greatest bookstore experiences:

Zhongshuge Bookstore: “When you walk into the shop, the books appear to reach impossible heights and stretch clear into the distance, an effect created by the perfect symmetry of the dark wooden shelves and the clever use of mirrors on the ceilings and walls. In an amphitheater-like room for readings and lectures, the impression is amplified by the reflection of the curved wall in the mirrored ceiling; it feels as if you are completely surrounded by a rainbow of book spines. In yet another room, the books are arranged on thin columns placed randomly around the room like trees in a forest, with benches interspersed for reading. Again, a mirrored ceiling makes the shelves appear as if they are not just trees, but towering redwoods.”

Atlantis Books: “Amid the glitz and din of tourist shops on the vacation paradise of Santorini, a whitewashed staircase sinks into the earth. At the bottom, a stone doorway opens onto a Hobbit-like den. Inside lies a hidden treasure: thousands of titles of literature, poetry and short stories, plus children’s books and pre-loved books, sprawled over shelves fashioned from driftwood and discarded pallets culled from junkyards.”

El Péndulo: “The décor is simple and calming: wooden floors, teal paintwork and a corrugated PVC roof that fills the shop with natural light. Should you need more encouragement, there are sofas where you can order coffee and thumb through a book or newspaper. There are other, more contrived invitations to ruminate, such as the pendulum that hangs from the ceiling and trickles sand into a shallow box.”