Innovation

The future of retail will not be evenly distributed

If you follow retail at all you’ve no doubt read multiple recent stories claiming that we are in the midst of a “retail apocalypse.” Like Chicken Little, these journalists and pundits see the sky falling on physical stores and a veritable tsunami of store closings, mall foreclosures and bankruptcies. I imagine they also expect a plague of locusts to descend upon us at any minute, as darkness covers the land.

Of course, this is all nonsense. The reports of traditional retail’s death are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “greatly exaggerated”–as several of my esteemed colleagues have rightly pointed out. Barring an asteroid hitting Earth, the vast majority of retail will still be done in brick & mortar stores for a long, long time. Most of the major retail brands we know and love will remain household names. Hundred of regional malls will not only survive but continue to do quite well, thank you.

While the disaster scenarios are fake news, one can’t be too sanguine either. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, we now have an emerging cadre of apocalypse deniers, who counter the claims of the alarmists with their own equally false narrative. Let’s take a look at their most common arguments.

Retail is still growing. This is true, but very misleading. First, the tepid growth in physical retail is not keeping pace with inflation, contributing to a profit squeeze for most players. Second, the main thing that nudges the number into the positive is the concentrated out-sized growth in a few categories, most notably off-price and dollar stores. So the growth in retail is good for a few–and pretty much sucks for everyone else.

Overbuilding of stores is causing a one-time correction. I’d rate this one “true-ish.” The US has been over-stored and over-malled for more than a decade and eventually, the bubble had to burst. But the rationalization and consolidation of commercial real estate go beyond a mere correction, however deep. We are witnessing a fundamental re-structuring of both the number of retail locations and the size and configuration of those boxes. Certainly, a big whack to the stores counts of flagging retailers was (and remains) overdue. And I do expect that the pace of store closings will subside substantially after the first quarter of next year. But anyone who doesn’t see the profound shift is missing the big picture.

Besides lots of new stores are opening. Yes, and this is one of the reasons that physical retail is far from extinct. But–and it’s a big but–while thousands of new stores are opening, they are, almost across the board, much smaller footprints than the stores being shuttered AND they are typically located in very different types of real estate. Hundreds of TJ Maxx and Dollar General stores don’t come close to offsetting the impact of hundreds of Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s closings. And while the store openings of  “disruptors” like Bonobos and Warby Parker get a lot of press, not only are their stores tiny, they are very likely to slow their pace substantially unless they can begin to demonstrate profitability.

Malls and retailers are re-inventing themselves with an emphasis on experience. Without question, the most successful malls are reformatting, adding restaurants, theaters, hot specialty formats and other experiential elements to differentiate themselves and drive foot traffic. The problem is bulldozing a mall anchor and/or replacing failed retail tenants with a steak house, juice bar or art show may be smart business for the developer, but it doesn’t necessarily help the retailers that are struggling. As far as retailers themselves, yes, a few are investing in experiential improvements, but for every cool Nike or Apple store there are dozens of retailers that haven’t invested a bit in innovation (or have limited themselves to some gimmicky shiny object that has an immaterial impact on customer relevancy).

The issue is that the future of retail will not be evenly distributed. Far from it.

Even a small shift of spending online (or failure to maintain real growth) can cause a great deleveraging of physical store economics. The closing (or massive re-purposing) of lower quality malls will be highly disruptive to particular major tenants. Online is growing disproportionately, affecting certain categories far more than others. Customers’ continued willingness to trade down and shop for discounts puts greater pressure on retailers with weaker value propositions and poor cost positions. And on and on.

Apocalypse? No.

But the suggestion that most retailers are not seeing their world’s rocked mightily is both misguided and dangerous. Similarly, the blanket notion that the sky is falling on everyone is equally wrong-headed.

Yet the harsh reality is that few retailers will escape unscathed from the seismic changes affecting the industry. Indeed we stand at a precipice. Without radical change and heretofore unseen levels of innovation, many major players are in for a world of hurt.

The clock is ticking. I’d hurry if I were you.

william_ford_gibson

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

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