1 May 2010

shoe shopping, the long tail, and libraries

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:39 am by Andromeda

I hate shoe shopping.

I know — this is grounds for eviction from my gender. But if you’d once gone into every shoe store in your hometown, asked if they’d sold your size, and they all said “no”, you’d hate shoe shopping too.

(I wear an 8.5AA, and basically no one sells — or manufactures — narrows. Note that I say I wear a AA, not that I am one, because in fact my left foot is a AAA or a AAAA, and my right is an AAAA in the heel but an A through the toes, because I have six of them. AA — which you note is the correct size for me nowhere — is my compromise. I was in my twenties before I realized it was possible to own dress shoes that did not make my feet bleed. Like I said, you’d hate shoe shopping too.)

Long story short: thank goodness for the internet. Maybe it’s not worth it for shoe stores, except specialty stores in major metro areas (thank goodness also for Nordstrom) to stock my size, but on the internet I can shop by my size and never have to see all those adorable shoes I will never be able to wear.

Funny thing, though: I was talking to @Zappos_Service yesterday and they mentioned that narrows tended to go out of stock as soon as they got them. Wait, what?

All this time I assumed that no one stocked my size because no one wears it, so there wasn’t an economic case for it. But apparently there is more demand for narrow shoes than vendors can meet and somehow the invisible hand is failing to make money off of this. Whuh?

I think what we have here is a problem of perception. When I talk to people who don’t wear narrow shoes (particularly people with wide feet) they don’t realize I have a problem finding shoes. They assume stores carry my size, and that finding narrows is easier than finding wides (demonstrably untrue). People, including shoe salespeople, will tell me that this brand runs narrow as if that is useful (it isn’t; please stop saying that).

So wait, how did my cranky rant have to do with libraries again? I mean, under normal circumstances I think of, e.g., Amazon as having a huge advantage over libraries on the long-tail front, for all that WorldCat and ILL and consortial borrowing help with that.

Eric Hellman posited recently that a library is a collection organized for the benefit of its community. And it’s that spirit that’s generally lacking in my shoe-shopping travails. The profit motive should be enough…but it’s not, if people misunderstand the nature of the problem. If they think that stocking 8.5Bs that “run narrow” will result in sales to the narrow-footed among us, they will merrily stock them as their AA and AAA and AAAA widths fly off the shelves, unnoticed. What’s needed is some sort of conversation, where I can say, so yeah, I have these mutant feet, how can we work together to clarify assumptions? to bend the rules for me? And it’s that kind of conversation that, ideally, libraries — human intermediaries — are well-suited to provide.

In other words, the internet works great for you if you’re in the long tail of stuff that gets made. If you’re in the longer tail of stuff that doesn’t — if you need some sort of DIY, bespoke, creative solution — libraries can, at their best, make that work.

Library sherpas are great and all, but maybe I’d rather library MacGyvers.