Going Out of Business Sales Online - Will Digital Distribution Kill the Retail Store?

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The Shrinking Aisles

If you’ve been a customer of Best Buy over the last few years, you’ve probably noticed the ever-shrinking floor space devoted to selling PC software. Back in the hay-day of Windows 95, Best Buy devoted aisle after aisle of space to the Software of all kinds, from video games to virus software to CD crammed full of clip-art. But the amount of floor space has decreased over time, giving way to a plethora of DVDs, walls of intimidating HDTVs, and even miniature Apple stores. Although some PC enthusiasts seem to be convinced that the reduced floor space for PC software is the result of a hidden contempt on the part of big retailers, the truth is a matter of business sense. Big box retailers like Best Buy don’t devote as much floor space to selling software because they don’t sell enough of it.

In the past, the receding tide of retail software has been due to major online retailers, capable of providing a larger selection and better prices. More recently, however, the erosion has been accelerated due to the arrival of digital distribution, a new way of buying software which poses the threat of ending retail software sales.

What Is Digital Distribution?

Digital distribution simply means the distribution of a digital copy of software devoid of any physical media such as a DVD disk. Rather than going to a store and buying software there, you simply go to the website for the company that makes the software you want to purchase, or to the website of an online vendor, and download it from them. You typically pay by credit card, and once you’ve paid, you receive a secure link that allows you to download the program you purchased. Once you’ve downloaded the program, you install just like you would any other software. However, the only copy of the program in your possession is the one on your hard drive.

As a consumer, there is very little difference between the program that you receive through Digital Distribution and the program that you receive in retail. The two copies of the same program obtained through the two different methods will functionally be identical, generally speaking.

That, however, does not mean that a digitally distributed copy with be of the same quality of a retail product, and vice-versa. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and deciding how to purchase your software depends on your needs.

The Digital Edge

The biggest advantage to digital distribution is cost. In most cases, digitally acquired versions of products are less expensive than those bought at retail. There are exceptions, mainly in the cases of popular software. Critically acclaimed video games, for example, often have shared pricing between digital and retail copies. But in most cases, a digital copy will be a little bit less than a retail copy. The sale prices available for digital copies are also notable - often times, you’ll be able to find related programs from the same company available as a digital bundle, with a price discount attached.

Besides price, the ease of buying digitally distributed software is an advantage. When you step into a retail store, you can’t buy anything the store doesn’t have. If the software you want is sold out, you’ll need to go somewhere else. Digitally distributed copies, on the other hand, are always in stock, and the whole Internet is your store. The convenience of this is surprising. Before digital distribution, I never thought of going to retail stores a chore - but once I realized I could download any program I wanted without spending an hour driving to the shop, buying what I wanted, and driving back, I was hooked.

Dead Hard Drives: Retail’s Reason To Live

While the advantages of buying digitally distributed software are obvious, there may yet be hope for retail. Digital distribution is easy, but only up until the point where your hard drive kicks the bucket. Because the only copy you own exists on your hard drive, there is nothing from which to install if you lose your copy. It is up to you to back up the software or else suffer the consequences. This risk is mitigated by purchasing a portable hard drive, but buying a portable hard drive to back up your digitally distributed software negates the lower prices, and it also negates some of the convenience.

Of course, many companies that offer digitally distributed copies of their software provide you with some way to download a program a second time if you do lose your data. But the amount of support available varies greatly from company to company. Some companies will allow you to re-download any product you’ve purchased an unlimited amount of times, but others implement caps. And there is always the risk that the company you bought the product from will go out of business, meaning that there is no one available to offer you support.

More restrictive DRM (digital rights management) can also show its always-ugly head in digitally distributed software. For example, Impulse, Stardock’s video game distribution service, makes it easy to download numerous games for very low prices. But all your purchases are tied to a single account, and cannot be transferred. If you for some reason lose your account information, you’ll have to call or email support and be able to provide evidence that the account belongs to you. These inconveniences are not insurmountable, and perhaps even preferable to a system like Valve’s Steam, which ties both retail and digital copies to an online service. But they are inconveniences which could be avoided by buying retail.

The Choice

Deciding between a digitally distributed copy and a retail copy boils down to your personal preferences and needs. Digital distribution is easy and convenient, making it a solid choice if you simply don’t have the time or inclination to hunt through retail stores. The better pricing also means you can get more for your hard earned dough.

But retail copies provide a sense of security not easily available from digital distribution. When you buy a retail DVD, you have that copy at least until the DVD is destroyed, which is unlikely even after years of constant use. If your hard drive crashes, you don’t need to worry about remembering the login and password you chose for the website of an obscure company you purchased from two years ago. There is also the simple, physical reassurance. Some people - myself included - simply like ripping open a box and inserting a disk.

In any case, if you haven’t been aware of digital distribution, you should give it a try at least once. Digitally distributed software isn’t for everyone, but it offers many benefits.