When you are a child, if you are lucky, you are taken into a toy shop and you can gaze in wonder at all the wonderful things on display. You can touch them, compare them with others, look at the prices and factor them into your choices. If you are lucky, a knowledgeable assistant will tell you about them and help you choose.
The equivalent for me is a shop selling camera, video and audio equipment. Most of this I can get from Amazon having done my own research and price comparisons. Sometimes, however, you actually need advice and to see rival products side-by-side.
B&H Photo and Video in New York is probably the largest photographic retail shop in the world. It is a palace of wonders, for the range of products on display, for the help which is available, and for the process by which you move from advice to choice to payment and thence to collection. These stages in the process are separate. Big brands like Canon and Nikon have their own little islands where someone knowledgeable will help you choose. Roving staff are on hand throughout the store and it rarely takes long to get attention.
Your details and that of the product are recorded and you are given a ticket; a complex and fascinating set of elevators and overhead tracks sends your choice off to the collection point. You produce the ticket at a cash desk and then take the receipt to a collections area near the exit. It is extremely efficient.
My son Will and I go there on the Sunday before Legaltech every year . Sometimes it is for one of those fiddly things – a lens cap or a missing screw – which it is hard or expensive to buy online. Sometimes we know exactly what we want. Most times there are choices to make and we need some help. First up was a Lavalier lapel microphone to replace one which had broken (a mere $253.99 which will teach me to be more careful in future).
More difficult was an extra light for video recording. All our kit has to be as small as possible because we have to carry it from continent to continent, and we had already spent more than enough on the mic so the answer was not just to buy something big. Choosing the right one and a tripod to hold it took a long time.
We looked at a shoulder harness for mobile video and rejected an otherwise neat-looking one on grounds of weight – where else can you get someone to lay out the options and let you hold them while you weigh (literally in this case) the pros and cons? I think we might come back to this though – DSLR quality combined with mobility is an attractive idea.
We spent a long time on this, so long that we needed to go out for a coffee and a bun to recuperate. By the time had made our choices and got to the tills, more than two hours had elapsed since we chose the microphone. Unknown to us, products get sent back to stock if not paid for within two hours and the microphone was on its way back to store; it was the last one in stock and it proved rather difficult to track it down as it trundled its way through the overhead system.
The round trip took us about five hours, compared with the ten minutes which it would take to do the equivalent on Amazon. But Amazon would not have given us advice nor allowed us to look properly at the goods. Web browsing is great but the three-dimensional serendipity you get from wandering the floors of B&H is a different experience altogether.