It finally clicked.
Thinking over the bagel issue last night (see the post for May 3), I remembered an article I read in 2006 by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine on the Long Tail. As Anderson describes, the Long Tail is “an entirely new economic model,” one that focuses on niche markets instead of big hits that appeal to mass audiences. Although his article focuses on the entertainment industry, the Long Tail has sufficiently entrenched itself into our economics that its effects can be felt in myriad sectors.
The cause (or some might say culprit) is the internet. Shelf space is no longer an issue. We are no longer limited to what a store can carry. The internet offers us every obscure purchase we want. Want everything recorded by ragtime musician Eubie Blake? You’ll never find it in the store. No problem. Go to the internet. Want a pair of authentic Swedish red clogs with a handmade wooden sole? (Yes, please.) No problem. Order direct from Sweden.
The Long Tail might explain why Marc Fintz of Davidovich Bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts are fighting over the word artisanal to refer to their bagels. Instead of getting my bagels at my local grocery store, I can get fresh New York bagels from Zabar’s in Manhattan shipped to me in Chicago overnight. New York bagels direct from New York! No wonder Fintz wants to call his bagels artisanal. He needs to distinguish his New York bagels from all the others you can buy, both in the store and on the internet. No wonder Dunkin’ Donuts wants to claim it, too. Dunkin’ Donuts never had to compete with Zabar’s or Davidovich Bagels or a thousand other bagel makers before. Because consumers are now used to the Long Tail of choices, today they do.
This phenomenon explains so much of what we see in the marketplace today. As Anderson writes, “everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them.” The more niche the market becomes, the more producers will strive to distinguish themselves from one another. So, artisanal is nabbed from the artists to sell bagels and corn chips and lettuce, which aren’t even art.
By the way, Anderson expanded his article into a full length book: The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. Available at an internet near you.