Monday, December 31, 2018

The Death (and rebirth) of Retail

Toys R Us last year at this time.

Happy New Year! We all know the retail landscape is changing. It's no secret. We know most of the obvious reasons, too. It's Amazon. It's competition. And it's oversaturation. Within 12.6 miles of where I live, there are seven Walmart Supercenters. Within 13.5 miles there are six Target stores. These are just two of the big retailers in the United States. This does not take into account the two giant malls near me, or the many outdoor strip malls, or the fact that the city I live in, Albany NY, has only about 100,000 people. Albany county has about 300,000 people. That's not a lot of people to keep all these stores afloat. Now when times are good people may be inclined to go buy overpriced useless (seasonal) crap year after year. After a bad year or two, or just getting wise to the fact that much of what's being sold is junk we don't need, people just stop buying this useless stuff.

Sears, Toys R Us and The Gap all closed locally.
America is the land of excess. And as much as we want (and a lot we don't want) will be sold to us. You could go out right now and apply for every store credit card, sign up for every discount loyalty card, donate a dollar to every charity offered at the register, and stock up on useless decorations for every holiday celebrated in the U.S. The retailers will take your money and not even blink.That's the big picture.

The smaller picture is that more and more people, I suspect, are smartening up some. We are buying much less of what we don't need. And we are buying better quality of what we do need. I know everyone is not doing this, but I think a lot of us are. We are no longer getting punch drunk at Target and buying every faux artisanal pice-o-crap item that is displayed, (sometimes literally falling apart in the store) for our consumption. Our homes are only so big. Wall, mantle, and coffee table space is finite, and once reasonably decorated, we don't need to keep adjusting the decor.

With Walmart, Target, Lowes, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, K-Mart, and dozens of other stores all a stones throw away, something had to give. With the Internet as the last straw, the duck-duck-goose music had to stop at some point. And now comes the reality of many stores left standing without a chair. Toys R Us and Sears are two local retailers I have seen vanish in recent years. In years past it was Borders Books that disappeared. Most areas just cannot support that much product, especially when you factor in the Internet. In the short term, it looks bad to have empty stores. In the long term, it can only be good for consumers. Competition and innovation are good things. Paying cover price for a $49.99 book is dumb when it's $29.00 online. Buying more useless crap for your house that breaks in under a year is dumb. And expecting to have thriving mega retail stores every two miles is just delusional.

When riding horses for transportation switched over to cars it was a bumpy transition. When we transitioned from using whale blubber (can you even imagine?) to oil a lot of whalers were out of jobs. Change and progress is never easy but it's often necessary. We are in a transition right now. What will the end result be? Amazon will likely open more physical stores that are run more efficiently than what we currently know. Some existing stores may adopt change. Some more may vanish. Some may get bought (Whole Foods) and forced to change.

My local Target has looked like this for years now.
The not-to-distant future will likely have stores stocked by robots, cashierless shopping, and less of what we don't need and more of what we do. I'm sure there will be some false starts, failures, and some as-yet-to-be-seen innovations. The idea of stocking every item, book, toy, and piece of furniture within two miles of your home is coming to a slow and painful death. Many old school retailers refuse to change and it's evident every time I go shopping. My local Target now crazily stocks its shelves all day every day. See the pictures. This has been going on for years now, likely to save money by eliminating extra shifts during the night. Whatever the reason boxes are everywhere in my local Target, it is definitely a financial reason. While the powers that be might think they are being frugal and will come out on top one day, they are mistaken. The messy stores cheapen the brand, make shopping a pain in the ass, and ultimately some boxes are going to topple onto some kid and generate costly negative national news. Boxes that block the aisles and shelves also keeps people from finding things and causes us to want to get out of the messy crowded store fast. I used to love Target. Now I have a love/hate relationship with it. It's not just the mess. It's the half-assed self checkout registers that are way too small and difficult to use if you have a large order with coupons and gift cards. It's the underpaid employees who often don't know anything. And it's the slow reduction in quality and cleanliness. I recently asked a manager at my local Target if I could get a price match for a retro Sony PS One that the rest of the world has discounted down to $60 but Target still had at $99. The manager said I could get a price match at any register. I placed all my stuff on a register. When it came time to price match the item, the guy working there said Target does not price match. Insert facepalm emoji here ➡🤦. Will Target die a slow death by a thousand cuts? Perhaps. Maybe Amazon will swoop in and rescue them. They certainly cannot go on in their current state with boxes scattered everywhere while we try to shop.

The future is coming...
Target is not alone. Before they folded, Toys R Us was always a useless pigsty, barely one notch above a warehouse. And Sears seemed to adhere to some old 1950s way of doing things that probably worked well thousands of years ago but no one gets today. I may have gone into Sears now and then but I never actively shopped there. Now my local Macy's seems to have this same chaotic feel. They stuff the store (fire hazard) to the brim with a zillion things, yet there is little in there anyone wants. It'd be better if a clothing store had everything in stock, was way smaller, and let you try it on and then shipped it to you. Less overhead could translate into lower prices and cheap shipping. Problem solved. Shop. Try on clothes that fit. Have them shipped from a central location.

More new ideas are bound to come. 3D printing. Robots. AI. Cashierless stores. Drone delivery. Showroom stores. It's all coming soon. And while the transition might be difficult, in the end it will be better for us, not worse.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (What took them so long?)

What took the studios so long to make an animated comic book film? The fit for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as an animated film is entirely natural. And since everyone these days nitpicks live action films to death for being "unrealistic" animation is the perfect answer. Check out my older post, "Fiction is not Reality" on that topic. And since every second of Into the Spider-Verse is animated there is no need to worry about what will, and will not, be CGI—it's all animated CGI and the story soars as a result.

I suspect SONY got tired of falling flat again and again with below par Spider-Man films. Spider-Man is arguably the greatest superhero of all time. He's been my favorite ever since I was a kid, learned he was from Queens, like me, and watched The Electric Company just to see live-action sequences with him.

So somewhere along the way SONY decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance with the Spider-Man property. Thank God. I hope there is no turning back. After seeing this gorgeously animated film I will not settle for anything less going forward. This is the first film that had me in a kid-like excited state in a very long time.

I always wondered why there were no animated films that looked like Bill Sienkiewicz or Alex Ross artwork. I'm no longer wondering. Into the Spider-Verse nods to all the great artists that have ever contributed to the Spider-Man comics all the way back to day one. The animation alone makes this film a masterpiece. It had me recalling when I first saw a Japanese copy of AKIRA back in the early 90s and I did not care that I could not understand it. I watched it because it was beautiful to watch. Into the Spider-Verse is beautiful in that same way. It's not just another superhero film.

It is a work of art.

The film also has an undercurrent dedicated to art. Miles is throwing up graffiti stickers, has a black book, and goes bombing a subway tunnel. The film also references artists like Banksy, Warhol, and countless others. Into the Spider-Verse is unlike any other animated film you have ever seen. According to a Vanity Fair article, "Miles Morales [comic] co-creator Sara Pichelli, Robbi Rodriguez, and more also contributed actual art for the film to ensure a hand-drawn look was laid over its C.G.I. animation. Sony is so pleased with the film’s distinct style, that the studio is taking the unprecedented move to try to patent the innovative technologies used on Into the Spider-Verse."

Animation is just better for so many things. It allows the audience (many who are unable to enjoy anything today) to suspend disbelief more easily and enjoy the film, rather than impose their idea of reality over a work of fiction. Anything the writers can dream up is executed, and no matter how wacky, it all just works. It works fantastically.

I don't want to yammer on and on. The story was great. The acting was great. It had the perfect blend of action/humor/drama. And the villains were great too. The soundtrack was great. The score was great. The end credits were great.

I feel like the film was personally made for me, because I love Spider-Man so much. I want to see many superhero films done this way going forward, but more than anything else, I want more Spider-Man films with Miles Morales. He's replaced Peter Parker for me now. Parker had a great run. The torch has been passed to a minority who represents the character for today and he fits well into the New York City I know and love.

Miles Morales is Spider-Man.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

My Son's Sleepy Fortnite Update

This is an open letter to Epic Games that I hope they will read.

Said by my son once when told it was time for dinner.
More and more, middle of the night Epic Games Fortnite Updates have my 11 year old son asking if he can "not go to bed at all tonight" or "get up at 4am to install a new Fortnite update." This most recent request came to me yesterday at around 7:30 on a Wednesday evening—a school night.

Now my wife and I run a very lenient and progressive home here. Our older son is almost 18 and we've been through it all once before already. We allowed full unfettered access to computers, gaming systems, films and TV before they could even talk. So far the experiment has gone quite well. Both boys are healthy, have progressed well in school, with good grades, no behavioral issues, and no apparent mental or physical abnormalities. It seems being allowed to watch R rated films from the time they were 4, playing video games continually, and a near endless supply of LEGOs have resulted in no ill effects on our children so far. See, we're cool parents. Still, every generation of parents eventually encounters something their kids do that is outer limits to them. The middle of the night Fortnite updates are beginning to resonate as insane to me.

While our older son missed the Fortnite: Battle Royale craze, our younger son was sucked right in. This is not unusual. Every generation of kids has something that possess their young minds. For me it was Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons and comic books. Contemporary video games, quite obviously, are slightly more tantalizing, especially when once you start the game and put on the headphones, you are transported like Flyn from TRON into an action packed virtual reality party with your friends—all the while as you battle to the death! I get it. We allow it. And overall Fortnite is saving us money on toys and junk that my younger son is mostly not interested in. He is interested in the occasional $25 PlayStation card for adding wacky skins and dances to his Fortnite characters. These virtual upgrades for the game, which is free to download, have already earned Epic Games over a billion dollars. Billion with a B. With that bit of knowledge about Fortnite's success, I think Epic Games can release the Fortnite updates when it's not the middle of the night on a school night. Lack of sleep, everyone knows, is not a good thing for anyone, especially for growing and developing children.

Now I can already hear everyone chiming in to say, "Why don't you just tell your kids to go to bed?"
This is true. But we live in a society, and some—not all—amount of responsibility falls on the content creators to exercise a minimum amount of effort to help out with the youth of America and the rest of the world. Honestly, too, hearing my son ask to "not go to bed all all tonight" or "get up at 4am to install a new Fortnite update" is not what I want to hear, or even want to have to engage in a discussion about. They never released Star Wars at 4am on Wednesday night. If they did I'm sure a heated discussion with my parents would have ensued.

Epic Games knows who is playing Fortnite. They know their audience. So for the love of God, please, release the Fortnite updates on a Friday night, or a Saturday morning or afternoon. Not during the middle of the night smack in the middle of the week.

Now my older son informed me that the updates can happen automatically and that Epic Games does this so their servers will not get overloaded. That was not good enough for my younger son. He wanted to be there to see it happen and play the very second the update was completed. Like I indicated earlier, we are quite lenient here and and he is a good boy so we allowed it, again. This was not the first time this has happened though. And since I now see a pattern developing, and realize these middle of the night updates will happen again in the future, I am hoping Epic Games will read this and take their fan base, and their families, into account when releasing future updates. School on the east coast lets out around three o'clock in the afternoon. Most tween kids go to bed by 10 o'clock. And regarding your servers being overloaded by a zillion young eager Fortnite players, well, I think you can splurge for some upgraded servers that can handle the increased traffic on a Friday night. I know we already donated a few hundred dollars to your pot in exchange for a Sushi chef outfit, wacky dance moves, and many other virtual eye candy extras for Fortnite.

All the best,