The Boutique Website —
What a marketer, sales weasel, or heavily persuasive speaker seeks to do when they seemingly coin a word or phrase out of the air is own it.
Ideally, this word or phrase might be a term already in use (but not quite universal), so they can manipulate the conversation into a direction where they dictate the inherent meaning and usefulness of the word to their own ends.
When Apple computer took the word podcast from the cat-fighting Dave Winer and Adam Curry and made it a default selection in itunes, they owned it. They dictated the conversation, while a large percentage of the audience might have had no particular knowledge of the term previously. More directly, I read a lot of marketer blogs (know thy enemy) and a frequent weblog entry template is “Here is Blipperblapping. What is blipperblapping? Let me tell you. Coincidentally, my company sells Blipperbapping enabler software and documentation/tools.”
I am about to do this to you. But before I do that, I want to talk about marketing and hyper-reality a little more.
There is a reason I have not set foot in an Einstein Bagels for ten years and will continue not to. It is my own reason and I don’t expect others to take up their arms and join me.
A job or two ago, as was often the case, I got hungry, and as was even more the case, close location of a store won out over a better quality store. So this was how I found myself in an Einstein Brothers bagel shop, which offers bagels and other composed meals in a truly generic manner from a time-tested fast-food concept which falls further along the Subway and Pizza Hut and Boston Market realm.
Walking in, I glanced about the store. Plastic sign heralded plastic prices of types of food with photos of some food near the prices and underneath similarly-dressed employees scurried back and forth behind glass partition housing examples of some food. Curved benches and plastic-topped tables with pressed particle-board insides yielded to corridors of rough-hew-appearing floor tiles punctuated with scattershot “people fences” indicating lines. Dropped ceiling material reigned above and the occasional false plant punctuated the scene. On the wall was a mural.
The mural contained a storefront, splashed with a patina and age-earned fuzziness, on which was written “EINSTEIN BROS.”. Nearby was a horse-drawn cart.
I walked out and never came back.
When you walk into a McDonald’s restaurant that has adorned itself in 1950s wear, harkening back to the company’s roots as the efforts of two brothers who sold the idea to a businessman who innovated for decades and helped bring the organization to its current dominating success, that architectural story is true. There were really McDonald’s restaurants in that era, and while they obviously did not have the same spectrum of items, you are, like it or not, a bit player in a half-century drama centered around a burger and fries. It may be an ugly truth to some, but it is a truth.
No such situation exists with Einstein Brothers, founded in 1990 by a linebacker and his brother in law and other investors, built to a relative success and sold to the Boston Market chain in 1995 (itself purchased by McDonald’s sometime later), it is a hatched newling compared to something like McDonald’s or, say, the Kellogg brand. It is not a product of, as is implied by the mural, upwards of 7 decades of bagel-related process and consideration. It is a lie. It is telling you a lie to sell you bagels.
The lie washes over some people, but so does a lot of things. Our relative sensitivity to various issues is an aspect of being human. I’ve come to witness images and films which, in other contexts, might cause a person’s heart to stop beating regularly. Things that make me react, meanwhile, will surely cause some people who would barely blink at a revealed tit to sniff and sneer at my erudite efficaciousness. So be it, giggling mouth-breathers. But it’s what drives me, as a historian, truly mad.
To that level, there is a lot of attempt to claim, through any means necessary, an authority or desirable aspect which would actually take a large amount of effort but which, it turns out, is not actually necessary. For example, and we’ll stick with the food industry here, because everybody eats out and everybody especially finds themselves in these chain restaurants because fuck, it’s late…
Chains like Applebee’s, Pizzeria Uno’s, and TGI Friday’s all contain one interesting shared aspect besides fried food and alcohol. They all have familiarity shelves.
These are shelves of stuff. We are not told whose stuff this is, there’s no sense where stuff comes from. If you walk into a newly-opened restaurant, the stuff will already be there. Contrast this with, for example, Hard Rock Cafes, where the “stuff” is all semi-famous musician cast-offs. Naturally they’d be there with the opening because they would be acquired through brokers or middlemen and readied for decoration in the Hard Rock Cafe. The “story” is “here’s a bunch of crap from musicians, you like musicians and you like to rock so eat some goddamn food and drink some high-profit alcohol here at the rocking Hard Rock”. This is a story that I can understand. Not so with the other chains.
The stuff on those shelves is old, new, maybe referencing local events, teams or the like. They are placed there by a professional, hung by professionals, meant to be interesting but not offensive and interesting but not distracting. They are eyeball chowder, cutting up the bland walls with varied color and text that gives a feeling of non-menacing background candy. You are in a place with a history or at least a personality, it says. Never mind whose and never mind what. It’s nice to have you here, we have free refills.
These are hyper-reality. They imply, through decoration, something they are not. In the case of the Hard Rock and McDonalds, even though I indicated these were “honest” representations of things that happened or are in some way real, they’re still not really real. They are saying things that aren’t entirely true, but which are certainly more true than “this chain founded in 1990 is from 1915” or “The owner and staff of this establishment has put their heart into this place and have decorated it with memories, places and events that mean something to all of us here who come to eat and drink and maybe just maybe get laid.” A sandwiched layer of mis-truth, but some mis-truths worse than others.
Since I’m way the hell down here anyway, let me just mention the most honest fast food chain store I ever visited.
I am calling this up spontaneously so I don’t have the name of the town this was in, but I can describe the circumstances. I am almost positive this was in California, during one of my crazy trips I took for the BBS Documentary where I drove from San Diego to Seattle and found myself in a lot of weird backroads and places. It might have been Oregon, but I don’t think so.
I found myself in need of gas and got into a pretty strange little off-ramp that took me to a town that was about 10 miles off the interstate, and of course once you’re five miles in with no gas you’re committed, buddy, so I was in this little town getting a fill-up. By some trees was a little Dairy Queen. It was made of wood and looked like an overgrown shed. This was a time when I would scarf down a Dairy Queen brownie sundae with no guilt or pause, so I made my way in before heading to points yonder.
The bulletin board inside this little dairy queen had a lot of notices of local events; more than just a couple things for sale and come to the carnival, this was all about high school events, and stuff for sale and charity dinners and an unusual amount of local news. But what really got my attention was the book.
On the counter while I was waiting was a book. Inside were the lives of the employees.
Photos of graduations. Photos of people working, smiling, hanging with friends. A renovation/rebuilding of this Dairy Queen had happened at some point, and there were photos of people pitching in and fixing stuff up. I remember photos of some people winning prizes and photos of the owner smiling with some of the kids. I recall, in fact, mentions of second generation employees, kids whose parents had worked in the Dairy Queen who were starting off. It was a beating heart of community, right there on the counter next to the napkins.
The whole place was hand-done. This wasn’t some plastic bookend that looked like it was rolled out of the back of an infernal machine. It was hand-built and hand-designed, with the low ceiling and screen windows in the rear of the place that gave it all a feeling of a summer camping ground’s lodge. It was, in its own way, beautiful.
I ate that sundae a little more thoughtfully than I normally might have.
Walk into any chain store where the employees are behind a barrier or window and provide you food in front of a plastic menu. Walk in and twirl around and look at the environment, and tell me if you get the feeling of a place where the employees do not see it as a prison term, a series of days multiplied by 9 and a number with a decimal in it, to result in a slip of paper meaning some level of enjoyment or freedom elsewhere. Tell me they’ll send their children there with delight, into that dull pit, and want to capture the moment on film, as this little Dairy Queen in the hills did.
What I am getting at, here, is that beyond the implication of warmth and humanity via decoration, is the enforcement of the appearance of quality and knowledge. It is so hard to fake competency, very hard. That sense you get, speaking to anyone, and within a few short moments your mind tells you I am conversing with a meat puppet. Someone is getting his decimals an hour and for him the clock ever looms, an indicator of freedom or slavery. He may think it doesn’t come across in his eyes and gait but it sure as fuck does.
The genius, the twisted brilliance of a lot of chains and stores is that they account for this, the assumption that the meat puppet will ultimately fail them and not be a winning portion of the selling process. They design the stores so that you’re kind of trapped there (witness many consumer electronics stores or Toys R’ Us and those “consumer corrals” that you have to enter and leave through). Once you’re trapped, you go for the easy thing instead of making the effort to just walk the hell out and go somewhere real. Selection is a watchword; if you can’t be served competently you at least can be served with many slightly incompetent but accessible options.
All of this is engineering to take the humanity out of the action, because the humanity, in the aggregate, will fail you in volume. There simply aren’t enough people to guarantee quality of a certain degree to this level of volume (hundreds of stores), and so you ensure they don’t rape or assault anyone, punish the people performing below a certain level, and occasionally reward the cream of the crop before throwing them into management where they can’t infect the others. If this sounds cynical, it’s time-tested information.
But this is also the level and usefulness of blog-whining, so let me kick it up a meta-level here to get to what I’m really talking about.
There are two main divisions in product selling: volume and premium. This is simplifying economics to the level of “Astronomy is the study of the moon” but stick with me.
In volume, there are a whole set of things you do as a marketer and designer and businessperson to get the most amount of people in the door or buying your stuff as possible. You put your stores in easily accessible places or make a website with an easy to remember domain name. You make those suckers big, big as you reasonably can. You don’t waste time on quality beyond a certain level of competency because there’s diminishing returns for relatively less reward: sell crap at $20 and ten thousand pieces instead of very good crap at $200 and thirty pieces. You stress your awesome low prices and your awesome bright store and your awesome savings and make sure nobody gets trampled. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
In premium, you get the best stuff you possibly can, get the best staff to accompany the stuff, offer the best, know why you think it’s the best, and present it in an environment of true and real quality, far divested from the crapola of the modern or previous ages. You build an island of pride, of tradition, and drum into your staff and supplies that the best will not be good enough.
The motto of the Waldorf Astoria kitchen is “The Difficult Immediately, the Impossible a Few Minutes Longer”.
Here’s the thing, though. Both of these approaches can be faked.
You can have a place that exudes quality and richness but do so in the same way an insect has camouflage to resemble a leaf or a stick. You can spray gold paint on anything. You can make a place quiet and seem like it’s been there a hundred years, but any amount of time in there and it’ll still suck. Las Vegas, which I spend a lot of time in each year, has many examples of this, in both directions. I’ve seen some real amazing high-end efforts utilizing learned decades-old or hundreds-of-years-old knowledge, and I’ve been in places where the “quality” goes down about a centimeter, like a marble veneer on an empty plywood box.
Interestingly, there can be fake volume, too! One of the attributes of many a crappy big “market” I’ve been in is a lack of true selection, craptastic staff moving slowly, prices that aren’t really low or even competitive. You get the big box and the implication of the best deal and all you’re getting is a bloated dimestore with a barely functioning distribution system behind it.
When something achieves success in this world through quality, also-rans run to snatch some of the pie, and the entire idea is devalued. This is kind of how it works and will always work. A new product comes out, made really well using good materials, and then clones appear within months and use crappy material and ape the name and look without any of the thought behind it and pretty soon nobody thinks of the product as having to be “good”. A classic example of this is shoes. Woe be to the shoe historians out there; I feel for you.
But this is all discussing, generally real-world stores, the so called “brick and mortar” locations that themselves must be slightly less nimble than electronic counterparts because each motion represents delirious amounts of cost and time, preparing a location as one would a stage, trying to keep up with trends and fashions and falling prey, of course, to short-cuts. You know this in your heart; I’m sure you’ve witnessed it.
But websites have scant excuse for all this chicanery.
Programming and design can be quite difficult; believe me, I would be the last in the world to degrade these arts. I would supplicate myself at the feet of anyone capable of a competent and robust and scalable application. I know the pain, the many pitfalls, the punishment that is meted out when an unintended misstep results in exposure of private details or unintended glimpses into the machinery out back. I indicate nothing otherwise.
But there is so much in the way of templates, of snap-in semi-competent code, of competent code that itself must be configured competently and is not. Where before at least a real-world set of licenses, inspection and oversight might make your presentation subject to at least a base quality or reference, no such situation exists for your website.
Many websites invent new user interfaces and then implement them poorly. Many lack actual content that wouldn’t fit on a single-page pamphlet. Scads make no effort to understand why people might arrive. Thousands, it seems to me, feel no poorer for handing over swaths of space on their website to whatever “ad network” may hand them a few measly dollars.
Sites will pretend they know what they’re doing, or lie outright. They’ll register subdomains and feel that’s all they want in the world. Others will pretend they’re the “best site” for some piece of information, some easily-copyable conflagration of text or graphics and be surprised how easily anyone else could duplicate or emulate their precious little consumable.
I introduce the term “boutique website”. A site that is honest, filled with prime content, easy to navigate, responsive to communication, run by a person or persons beholden to only doing what they do as best they can with the time they have. It is a term I will use freely in the future.
It is also, I am sad to say, apparently a phase. A site will be truly boutique for a short time before rotting, like a particularly juicy fruit left on a plate in the sun, a moment we can hopefully capture and delight in before the candor dissipates and we’re left with only a memory of what once was.
We will enjoy our boutique websites, our moments of quality in the sun, and dine freely of them, and when the day turns gray and the rain comes, we will, I hope, not bemoan of what has been ruined but delight that for a moment, like a breath, the ruination did not yet come.
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flickr, I’m looking at you.
As the co-creator of mobygames.com, I don’t agree with you. Websites, if they are useful, continue to be useful as long as they continue to exist and don’t reduce the amount of content that made them boutique. If I am missing the point by a mile, please correct me; did you mean, for example, that creating truly nice websites that do what they wanted to do is a fad?
As a friend, you must come with me the next time you’re in my neck of the woods to witness the sheer splendor that is Superdawg.
Have you read “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug? It’s a wonderful examination of good and bad website design from a usability perspective. I wish more people would read it…
As long as there are people like you to set the standard.
There will always be oases of beauty in the desolation they call web 2.0.