Remember Retail Stores?

It was my first year as president of a major electronics retailer facing a serious financial crisis.

Photo by DMedina at

“Decker, get in here,” I called to the closest analyst who wasn’t watching videos on a smartphone.

“Yes, sir.”

“We have a problem. It’s the future. Our cars are driven by computers. Our coastal cities have all been swallowed by rising sea levels. Tom Brady has finally retired from football and returned to his home planet.”

“Yes, I heard that, sir.  Drew Bledsoe has been practicing his throw.”

“But there are no more retail stores. Look at this map” – I motioned to a large map behind me – “this was once the extent of our retail empire, and now – Decker, are you paying attention?”

“Yes, of course, sir.”

“Each blue pin point was one of our retail stores. Look at how many blue points there are! Ten years ago, you couldn’t drive 50 miles in any direction without passing one of our convenient locations. Now…nothing.  All our stores have closed.”

“I know, sir.  Everyone’s got that new Amazon Think installed in their brains.  They just close their eyes, think of what they want, choose two-day or standard shipping, and…poof, a drone drops the product right on their doorstep.”

“Ok, Decker, I get the picture,” I said. “You don’t have to act it out for me.”

“I wasn’t acting, sir. I need more Raisin Bran. It should arrive by Wednesday.”

I rubbed my face.  “We need to think of a way to get people back in our stores.”

“But, sir, customers stopped shopping at retail stores years ago.  There’s the limited selection, higher prices, long lines. And don’t even get me started on returns. Customers just aren’t willing to go through that kind of hassle for a product.”

“Well,” I said, “if they won’t endure the hassle of retail for the product, then the hassle of retail will be the product!”

The opening of the world’s very first “Hassle’s” was met with little fanfare. So many retail stores had disappeared that most people figured it was another nail salon, or maybe one of those high-end pastry shops that specializes in stale biscuits with a dollop of whipped cream, except calls them “langue du chat” and then charges $7 for each one.

The people who wandered in, however, were surprised to the shelves filled with televisions and computer monitors, and adapters and cables, and infrared trackballs and cell phones and portable a/c units that you placed inside your pillow to keep it cool on hot summer nights.

“This isn’t even the latest model!”

“They don’t have the size I want!”

“And look at the price! At least $20 more than it would cost online!”
And when they took the products to the checkout, they had to wait on a long line of other customers.

“Wow, this line is really long.”

“Yeah, I can’t believe how slow it is going.  Why do they just have one register going?”

“What they are talking about at the checkout? How complicated can it be to pay for something and print a receipt?”

And then when they got home they tried out their item and found that something was wrong.

“There’s a purple line through the middle of the display!”
“Once you turn the volume up, you can’t turn it down!”

“The TV shows nothing episodes of My Little Pony!”

But when they called our customer service number to find out how they could return the product for a refund or a replacement, and successfully passed the seven levels of automated menus so that we could “better serve” our customers, they were told – by a recording of my own voice – that they had to bring it back to the store they bought it from.

And then when they arrived at Hassle’s with their defective product, there was of course a long line of other disgruntled customers, a line even longer than the line they had to wait on to buy the item, in front of the “Returns” desk.

And after they spent more of their precious time standing on the Returns line while holding a heavy piece of electronics, and finally reached the Returns desk, they were told that they would have to pay to ship the item back to the manufacturer, and if the defect was something covered by the warranty, then it would be fixed and the item shipped back to the them, again at their expense.

“And how long does the repair take, sir?” asked Decker some months after Hassle’s had first opened.

“Six to eight weeks is what we say.”

“Six to eight weeks! But…but the History Channel says that the only advantage of buying the item in the store was so that you could have it that very day.”

I laughed. “Yes, we say that in our Super Bowl ad, too. But the real answer is…they buy it in the store so that they can have the experience of suffering with a group of complete strangers.”

Decker shook his head. “But how can that be, sir? Why would people voluntarily choose that path when they can have the same item, but cheaper, easier, and in working condition?”

“For the same reason that people shop in the first place,” I said. “With robots doing all the work, people have got to do something!”

Remember That Mysterious Space Object?

Remember that strange elongated object hurtling through our Solar System from another star? The object – named ’Oumuamua for easy reference – that was so strange and so elongated that scientists said that rather than an asteroid, it was probably a spaceship containing alien technology? One minute they were speculating on how the aliens’ smartphones would at compare to the iPhone X, and the next minute the object had vanished from everyone’s news feed, replaced by a Chinese space station that they are planning to have crash into Earth in case the Olympics are too boring.

What we did not hear about was the mission to explore this object. In fact, there were three camps of scientists that speculated on what the elongated asteroid spaceship might contain.
“It has to be bacteria,” said one group of scientists. “Bacteria is the only organism that can survive the harsh and unforgiving elements of space.”
“No,” said another group. “it has to be plants. Only plants could survive in a place where the only food was sunlight and ice.”
“No, no, and no again,” said a third group. “It must be cats. For only cats would have a coat and neck fluffy enough to survive the cold of outer space.”

It was agreed that there was merit to all three views. But Netflix increased its monthly subscription fee by a dollar, we could afford to send just one mission.

After a day of voting, Team Space Cats was way ahead. The mission to confirm the presence of space cats launched a week before Christmas.

But it turned out to be an asteroid ship full of cards. The cards had been sent because there was no room. The mission was a failure.

“There isn’t life at all. These aren’t space cats. It’s just a pile of birthday cards that someone couldn’t bear to throw out!”
Everyone on the mission shook their heads. And they read the cards. There was nothing else to do. And there, at the bottom of every card, instead of a signature, was a little paw print.