All right, I am going to say it and smarter people will soon prove its true: the Internet is destroying the middle class.
I worked in a coffee shop in downtown Seattle. Yes, it was a Starbucks, but I am telling myself that I am much hipper, if I just say coffee shop, then if I say, I worked at a Starbucks. Anyway, Sherman was a regular customer, might still be, but of course, I’m not there anymore. I had no clue who he was, but he was always friendly. He came in a couple times a week and ordered a Venti, that’s super large in Starbucks talk, Americano. So, the friendly chap I am, I asked him what he was doing for work. He told me he was an author, and me being curious, but also worried, as I am really bad with spelling and remembering names, (English is m second language, if you cant tell), I asked him to write his name on a piece of paper, so I could look him up and read one of his books. I assumed it was someone obscure. Someone, who I would have to google and perhaps find in a used bookstore. So when I read the name on the paper, I obviously felt like a idiot. Of course, I knew of him. His books and his great movie ‘Smoke Signals’. Anyway, I am still an idiot, because I even threw the paper away, which he had written his name on.
But different time, different story. Today I don’t make his Americano anymore, today I follow him on Twitter and in the past, I have found a few incredible funny, insightful 140 character nuggets of wisdom or entertainment.
But last week the above mentioned tweet came through my timeline. And as much as I agree that the middle class is in an interesting predicament, blaming the internet is not the solution.
Yesterday I was on the phone with my friend from Germany. I helped Werner open his first bookstore and thank him for most of my entrepreneurial spirit and my love to ‘think different’. The told me that after over 15 years and 6 locations he’s considering calling it quits.
He’s not broke, money still flows, but he can read the writing on the wall. Customers come into his store with their ebook readers in their hands, asking him to help them figure out how it works.
Yes, the internet is challenging every aspect of our live, and more so every aspect of our parents lives.
I’ve been long thinking, and acting upon, that small retailers are in real danger of becoming obsolete. Who needs to buy a spatula or an egg beater, a music player, anything mass-manufactured, locally, by actually walking into the store?
Restaurants aren’t affected by that, neither are service-oriented businesses. But the small retailer used to be the curator of cool-important-valuable, ‘insert your qualifier’ products. The trusted source for new stuff for you life.
First came the malls, the department store with their vastness and suggestiveness that anything can be had just a short drive away in the concrete desert. But shortly after the internet arrived and the Amazon-types are now delivering on the promise of every product-all the time.
‘What, you don’t have this water bottle in my favorite color, or that obscure pattern? I shall order it online.’
Why does the customer even know that this color exist?
Consumers awe more educated then ever. With that, rises demand for selection and convenience. Who doesn’t want to shop for a product on the couch rather then driving to the nearest shop just to find out that the product isn’t in stock?
All this talk about convenience I easily dismissed for years as a retailer. But there was another huge eye-opening aspect, and that actually gave me hope. A lot of hope actually. And this, in a long-winded way, will help me respond to Sherman Alexie.
Last year for the holidays I wanted to find a Xmas present for my wife. Without huge time pressure I was browsing the web as usual, reading up on blogs, drifting from one link to the next, when my eyes were drawn to a story about an architect couple from NYC who aside from architecting and making art, started their own line of jewelry. Jewelry, created on a 3D printer. Hello, this sounded freaking’ rad. Within an hour from stumbling on the link to the blog post, that told the story of the couple, I had purchased a Xmas present, that I was incredible proud of and if I may be so modest, was and still is a huge hit.
All of a sudden, this wasn’t just a convenience purchase. This was shopping perfection in my book. I found something unique, I didn’t have to kill myself trying to find something extra-ordinary. It was unique. There was a story. In short, something before the days of the internet I would’ve trusted my favorite local merchant with providing for me.
Now, I am empowered to hunt and gather myself. And of course, just like with the malls, most people are replacing Walmart shopping with ordering from Amazon, but here is what I see:
In today’s world of endless choices and preferences, the small artisan producer has no chance to provide for their local community. You just can’t create enough critical mass, can’t gather enough local customers that care about our product.
Unless you are willing to create a mass-market product that everyone needs, but even then you can’t compete with toilet paper from China. The supply chain has become too efficient.
So, how can the Middle Class survive, make sense of this brave new world. What is the small retailer supposed to do? Is there room in the world, for the small merchants, the curators of style. The people that love providing trends, offer assistance and helps out with solutions?
Small retailers who survived the mall, found themselves increasingly embracing technology as a savior to their competitiveness against the big box stores. And rightfully so. But just like the big box retailers have to be vigilant and constantly change and adapt, this alertness is now required of every business owner.
Gone are the times when one can just have a job. And gone are the times, when one can just have a store. A store, four walls with shelves in a strip mall or downtown is not enough to bring people out anymore. Shopping for pleasure has moved onto the Internet, is faster and simpler, and leaves us with more time to enjoy our lives doing stuff that doesn’t involve spending money.
So, the small retailer embraces the internet for what it’s great for. We setup a website, embrace social media. If we go all out we build an online store.
In many ways, those tools will go long way, yes. But not all the way. The core of what we set out to create has shifted too much. All of a sudden we compete on price on a global scale. We worry about supply chains, shipping and receiving. Our customers are all over the world. We feel used, just a tool. Not, why we are set out to build our retail store.
We can join the online community, interact on Facebook and Twitter. But, as small business owners we set out to build and own our own thing. Not just one voice in the media jungle controlled by networking hustlers who scream the loudest.
The fraction of the middle class that desires this, is who I will address here.
The ones that just want to have a job, put their head in the sand, wait for retirement and hope for the best, are screwed.
Technology has created a huge new group of middle class people. Developers, techies, coders, computer people. They have proven that you can make money with this internet thing, but not just by building it and feeding the monster, but by harnessing its power.
There are people that are not techies, they are writers, builders, artists, procedures curators. Currently they make money by connecting with the people that spend a lot of time in front of their computers for work reason.
But as techies become mainstream and bring their technology with it, there is a huge opportunity opening up to use the same tools and connect any other group of people in the same way. People increasingly use those fantastic global tools for work, to share, to connect and to shop. Their lives are drawn into this, and the world is looking for curators, for guides, through this jungle, this brave new world.
The world is looking for the next Martha Stewart, the next Oprah.
Those people already exist. Some have found their niche and are doing very well in connecting their community, creating highly engaging content and trendsetting products. Some have a voice, but haven’t discovered how to harness this platform to make themselves known.
In the past in order to be discovered, we needed a baseline of structure on which we had to align ourselves.
The writer sends his manuscripts to a publishing house, the actor auditioned.
Now we have a new baseline. A computer in every house, and an incredible simple to use and inexpensive tools at our disposal.
Everyone can be a star on YouTube. Self-publish a book and start a dialogue with a group of people. Blog, share, influence, be heard.
Yes, it’s hard in the sea of possibilities and the mass of content that’s being produced to find an opening. But, the door is for you to walk through. The gate keeper is gone. Now it’s just your inner-voice that’s holding you back.
For the middle class this is an opportunity to find a whole new way of making a living. For the small business owner this is a realization, that you were a curator after all, and you need to find a way to redefine this for yourself, of what this means in the new millennium.
It just challenges the Middle Class to be proactive and adapt to a new lifestyle and find new ways of affording their lives by creating new ways of making money. Gone are the days when being just employed was the way to walk through the years.
And what an opportunity. Embrace it!