Curious Business Models Theatre Presents…Consumers

Yesterday, The Wife and I were debating where to seek out a certain piece of electronic equipment for the house (if you must know, we want to get one of those jacuzzi tanning beds–we work hard, we deserve it!). I jokingly said she should look for it at Consumers, which I thought would be a sure-fire laugh getter, but I was only greeted with silence. It dawned on me that there must be some people out there unfamiliar with the infuriating world of Consumers.

In case you are one of those blighted few, I’ll fill you in. Consumers was a big, boxy store that inexplicably sprang up all over the northeast corridor in the 1980s, despite having one of the counterintuitive business models ever.

The idea behind Consumers: the store could save overhead by not having a big showroom for all its wares, and pass those savings along to you. The stores were extremely minimalist, with only a few items on display, and sometimes a jewelry counter.

But if they had no showroom, how did you get your stuff? I’m glad you asked! Consumers had huge catalogs full of all the items they sold. It was sort of a Sears Wish Book, except it contained more than kids stuff. VCRs, jewelry, lawnmowers, you name it.

The catalog was enormous, and enticing. I remember being very impressed by them as a kid, especially the toy/video game section. They even had a teaser for Super Mario Brother 2 several months before it was released. Of course, it was just a screenshot of Super Mario Brothers 1 blown up really big, a ruse even eight-year-old me was able to suss out. But I appreciated the effort they went through to trick me.

If you wanted something at Consumers, you filled out a slip with the item’s info, then got on a Space Mountain-sized line that snaked through rows of metal corrals. Eventually, you came face to face with an actual clerk manning one of the many counter stations that lined the length of the store. You handed your slip to a clerk and waited for them to retrieve your item from the warehouse. And waited. And waited. And waited. And also waited.

And after all of this waiting, there was no guarantee the store would actually have the item in question. Consumers lacked either the ability or the willingness to implement a computerized database to track such things (even though this technology existed by the mid-80s), so the only way to determine if the store had something in stock was to actually go in the back and check.

Disappointment can happen to you at any store, of course. You go to the mall, hoping to find a certain thing, and it turns out no one has it. But there is something especially exasperating about jumping through all these bureaucratic steps, and waiting on line, and waiting for a clerk to emerge from the back, and then finding out you’re screwed. Kafka himself could not have designed a more Kafka-esque shopping experience.

This was torturous when I was a kid. We didn’t get toys too often, but when we did, it was often at Consumers, because it was cheap and we didn’t have a Toys R Us nearby. Children have no patience to begin with, but asking them to endure this rigamarole is impossible. I would hear other kids cry and scream and throw fits as they found out the toys they wanted were out of stock, and just pray they didn’t want the same thing I wanted.

This shows just how far things have advanced in the last 25 years. The modern shopping experience is all pitched toward empowering the consumer, giving them as many choices as possible and extensive previews of the product they’re considering buying. Can you imagine a store that not only required such waiting, but didn’t guarantee they’d have what you wanted? There’d be riots in the streets.

What’s even more amazing is that Consumers was simply the most austere of the catalog stores of the 80s. There were a few others, like Service Merchandise, but these other stores also had a lot of goods on display. You could actually buy things off the rack at Service Merchandise. You could not do that at Consumers.

In a weird way, Consumers was a predecessor of sites like Amazon, which also have no physical displays, which cuts down on costs. And you can think of a catalog as a low-tech site showcasing a store’s wares. The big difference, of course, is that you don’t have to leave your house to window-shop at Amazon. And if what they have is out of stock, you go to another site, or shrug your shoulders, rather than leave a store completely defeated and hating life.