Nothing lasts forever. As buggy makers and typewriter manufacturers would sadly confirm, it's only a matter of time before a new, better, faster technology renders your existing business model obsolete.
The choice: Evolve or die.
We all know the Internet has ushered in an unprecedented wave of technological and business transition, but sometimes it takes a simple moment to make it seem real. When our 10-year-old son arrived home from school recently and stared blankly at the Yellow Pages directory that had been left on our doorstep, I knew we had reached a new milestone in the evolution of online vs. offline businesses. His generation will never know what the pre-Internet world looked like.
To better understand where he — and we — are headed, it may be helpful to look at some traditional businesses and activities that have already been shunted aside by the Internet rush:
1. Record stores
Buying shrink-wrapped spinning media from a store in a mall isn't dead yet, but it's headed there. As the industry shifts from physical CDs and DVDs to online delivery, the record companies that used to tightly control every facet of this industry are slowly — or in some cases not-so-slowly — sliding from grace.
Web-savvy independent artists are increasingly navigating the process, from production to marketing to touring, on their own. And keeping more of the revenue along the way. Back on main street, video stores, under threat from on-demand streaming services like Netflix, face a similarly bleak future.
2. Phone companies
Sure, the traditional phone company still exists, but it's now a radically different animal. Skype and other IP-based voice — and increasingly video — services are prompting consumers to question why local and long distance service continues to cost what it does. With millennial consumers ditching landlines entirely and everyone else abandoning pay-by-the-minute long distance for largely free Internet telephony, traditional phone companies have expanded into Internet, television, wireless and other services to survive.
This may be a little unfair, as they continue to report the news, kill trees and truck it across town to your doorstep every morning. But not for long. The Internet's 24/7 news cycle has forced traditional newspapers to shift online in a big way. Old worries about the website cannibalizing paper-based subscriptions are giving way to the stark realization that younger consumers don't buy papers and advertisers are looking for ways to reach them. Classified ads, long a revenue mainstay for newspapers, have collapsed thanks to the emergence of services like Craigslist and Kijiji. The newspaper of tomorrow will shed the name entirely as it either becomes a multiplatform news service, or dies trying.
4. Small appliance repair shops
Once upon a time, if the toaster stopped toasting, you'd bring it into the dark, dusty store just off your town's main street where a plaid-wearing man with smile wrinkles on his face would diagnose the problem. If it was cheap enough to fix, you gave him the business. Today, the friendly repairman is gone, and no one gives a second thought before heading to the big box store to buy a replacement. How is this the Internet's fault? It fuels ever-growing pressure to drive consumer prices down. We end up with cheap, non-repairable, disposable goods — and no room for craftsmanship.
5. Watches and watchmakers
With every cell phone and smartphone sporting a built-in clock — updated from the wireless network, no less, so it never needs to be set — the traditional wristwatch, long a rite of passage for graduating high schoolers, is an increasingly rare sight on the wrists of teens and twentysomethings. And if you do happen to wear a watch? Hope it doesn't break, as watchmakers are becoming almost as difficult to find as appliance repairpeople.
6. Pawn shops
Sketchy as some of these places may seem, for generations they've been mainstays for consumers looking for quick cash as well as those looking for quick bargains. Online auction services like eBay are cutting into their business base by making it far easier and quicker to find what you're looking for by simply going online.
7. Map makers
Online map services and GPS capability showing up in everything from dedicated in-car devices to smartphones are combining to make unfolding — and refolding — a paper map seem a little too quaint. And dangerous, given new hands-free laws. Buy those paper-based maps from the in-store display before they're gone for good.
8. Customer loyalty
Forrester Research data released last month shows almost 60 per cent of shoppers in the U.K. initiate an online shopping session without first deciding what brand they prefer. About 86 per cent of them read customer reviews before making their decision, and 44 per cent hit the web before heading to the mall. When a competing store's listing is just a click on an iPhone away, customer connections to the stores and brands that used to define the shopping experience are no longer as strong as they once were. Bricks and mortar stores may want to invest in additional staff training to keep customers from bolting.
The Internet-driven churn of once-thriving, now-obsolete businesses will likely continue as long as there is an Internet. And beyond. Companies that recognize the fundamental threat posed by shifting technologies and business models stand a better chance of surviving and thriving than those that choose to keep their heads in the sand.
Even in today's webified, social-media-powered economy, history continues to repeat itself. Only now it moves faster with each passing day.