THE JOURNEY YO REMARKABLE RETAIL

Steve helps organizations understand and respond to retail disruption by creating customer-centric, memorable and profitable growth strategies.

Retail’s Great Bifurcation 2.0

It was nearly 10 years ago when I first started to notice the bifurcation of retail. More and more, success was being found at either end of the shopping spectrum.

Retailers, whether brick & mortar dominant or predominantly online, that offered great prices and fantastic convenience were experiencing growth that significantly outpaced the industry overall. Amazon was the most obvious, but we were also witnessing the ascendency of off-price retail, dollar stores, warehouse clubs and value grocery chains like Aldi and Trader Joe’s. Similarly, at the other end of the continuum, well executed, largely upscale, specialty concepts were doing well. Brands as diverse as Apple, Restoration Hardware, Ulta, Sephora—and even upstarts like Warby Parker—were delivering strongly growing sales and expanding store counts.

In 2015 I wrote my first blog post about retail’s great bifurcation and started talking about the collapse of the middle, as it became clear that, despite the emerging “retail apocalypse” narrative, most of traditional retail’s problem were primarily concentrated among those brand’s that had failed to pick a lane and continued to swim in a sea of sameness. Soon, the death of boring, unremarkable retail became the centerpiece of many of my keynotes. In early 2018, my friends at Deloitte brought more data, clarity and nuance to the issue when they published their seminal study on the topic.

Amid the coronavirus crisis there is all sorts of speculation about the death of physical retail and, frankly, some downright non-sensical projections for future online sales. While the near-term substantial contraction of nearly all non-essential retail is glaringly obvious, it’s much harder to predict what the long-term future will hold, particularly among concerns of resurgence of the virus later this year. What seems far more certain, however, is that a second, even harsher, wave of bifurcation is now upon us.

As Deloitte’s research pointed out, a huge driver of retail’s first wave of bifurcation was rooted in macro-economics. Simply put, the rich were getting richer, allowing for greater capacity to spend on higher-end products and, increasingly, experiences. Conversely, for something like 80% of American families, the past decade was characterized by little or no participation in asset inflation and stagnant or declining discretionary income. In turn, the vast majority of consumers were “forced” to trade-down to lower priced alternatives or get their dollars to stretch further.

As I go into in far more detail in my new book, even before the pandemic, the rising abundance of competition, information overload and consumer access to products anytime, anywhere, anyway makes it far more difficult for any retailer to be a compelling signal amid all the noise. Even very good is not good enough anymore. When we consider that the United States has been dramatically over-stored for quite some time, the growing reality was that it was becoming “death in the middle.”

The factors driving the first wave of bifurcation are all further amplified by the pandemic, regardless of how quickly we see any semblance of a rebound. With unemployment likely to surge to Depression-era levels, purchasing power for many consumers will remain constrained for some time, further distorting the spending shift to the value end of the spectrum.

More cataclysmic, will be the mass store closings, bankruptcies and potential liquidations among the undifferentiated middle. JC Penney, Sears, Macy’s, Dillard’s—and quite a few others—came into the crisis with weak balance sheets, poor momentum and plans to reinvent themselves that could be best characterized as somewhere between a slightly better version of mediocre and lipstick on a pig. Without mounting a far more robust journey to remarkable, their days of reckoning have now gone from a year or two down the road to right here, right now.

While it’s anyone’s guess—as it always is—what the future truly holds, the nearly complete collapse of the middle that I have been predicting for sometime will largely be complete far faster than I would have imagined just a few months ago. As the crisis subsides it will become even more clear that the need to be truly remarkable—as well as far more agile—is not only paramount, it is increasingly urgent.

A version of this story 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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"The Store Operations Council enjoyed every minute of Steve Dennis's presentation on retail's future. He always keeps it real and speaks the language of retail experts."

Cathy Hotka

Principal

Cathy Hotka & Associates

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"The Store Operations Council enjoyed every minute of Steve Dennis's presentation on retail's future. He always keeps it real and speaks the language of retail experts."

Cathy Hotka

Principal

Cathy Hotka & Associates

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