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Patterns under the surface


We went shopping for a new TV today, armed with a little online research and several brands and models that looked like they might be in range of what we wanted. (Cyber Monday was at hand, so it seemed like the thing to do.)

They were substantial brands available online – if you wanted to wait and buy without seeing them in action first personally – with a week’s shipping, or so. But we wanted to buy in store, so we went to some of the stores where those models seems likely to be found – big boxes, the Wal-Marts and Fred Meyers and Targets.

Here is what we found:

A bunch of television sets for sale, none the particular make or model we were seeking. That’s understandable; you can see why there might be a little less variety in the brick and mortar than in the cyber.

What was really striking was this: They were basically the same – mostly the same selection – in each of the big box department stores we visited.

Eventually, we went to a specialty store (in our case – and hey, why not a plug? – Video Only) which did have a variety of makes and models on the floor. We took a set from that store home with us.

The point here again isn’t the lesser variety in the broad-based stores; what’s what you usually should expect in most categories of goods. It makes sense even in a really big box.

What was a little disconcerting was the lack of difference between the stores. If didn’t find it at Wal-Mart, you probably weren’t going to find it at Target or Fred Meyer, or the other way around. And the prices weren’t very different either.

In more casual observation, this seemed to be roughly true for a bunch of other goods, too.

Usually, in past years, stores – even sprawling chains – tend to do things, offer things, or offer terms or prices, very different from competitors, as a way of differentiating from one another. Now, they seem to be converging, becoming ever less alike. They’re no longer a hamburger place and a chicken place and a taco place; they’re all burger places.

Or so it seemed today on the television hunt.

If that’s the ongoing case, the future doesn’t seem too wonderful for a variety of retailers out there, or for meaningful competition.

It gave the feeling of subterranean patterns. An uneasy feeling.

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