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It's time to reflect on the state of American retail

Brick-and-mortar companies are having trouble evolving


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Now that we’ve all been through the annual frenzy that is the Christmas shopping season, it is time to reflect on the state of retail in America. Not because retail isn’t doing well; it is, despite the fact that the impression is that retail is morphing into e-commerce. It is time to reflect on the state of retail because brick-and-mortar retailers are having trouble evolving.

They have looked at the enemy – online retailers – and decided that the best way forward is to become online retailers rather than look at their own heritage and try to discover a way to make it better. It seems ironic to say this in such an internet-centric world, but brick-and-mortar stores, I believe, need to make themselves more user-friendly. Instead, it seems they are driving their own customers to the web – and not necessarily to their own websites.

I have a friend – my age, who grew up in the golden era of shopping malls – who proudly proclaimed this year that he wouldn’t set foot in a store, opting instead to do all of his holiday shopping on his laptop. No lines. No Christmas carols. No frenzy. No parking. My friend was not alone, of course, and it strikes me that e-commerce is the ultimate “guy shopping:”

We men don’t, b(u)y and large, shop; we decide on something, laser focus on where to get it, buy it and move on. Women browse/shop as an activity. Men look at it as a mission. Let the men have the web – I say go with your strength and make stores themselves even more woman-oriented.

Brick-and-mortar retail seems to be going through the same pangs that the newspaper business has. Having been beaten to death by the surge in e-commerce, these two staid, venerable, and vulnerable, old business models seemingly refuse to change, to up their game, and sit idly by as the internet steals their thunder and makes them shells of their former glorious selves. It shouldn’t be. They are stores, and should act like a store, rather than playing at the fringes of hot e-commerce.

Before we panic, however, some perspective is needed. The retail news buzz around Thanksgiving weekend’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday was on internet sales, and the numbers were impressive: Reports indicated that Thursday-Monday online sales topped out at $12.8 billion, up 15.2 percent from the same period last year.

In fact, internet holiday sales have posted impressive gains each year for awhile. Not coincidentally, these positive internet sales articles were on the web. Truth be told, total retail sales for the period this year reached some $50.9 billion, and while brick-and-mortar sales fell year-over-year, the stores still posted more than three times the sales of their internet counterparts.

In other words, physical stores aren’t dead, or even mostly dead. Just dying the slow and agonizing death of trying to become something they are not, and not paying enough attention to what they have been and are.

A store isn’t just for stuff – although they seem to have stuffed themselves with stuff in a catch-as-catch-can game. The web is for stuff. A store should be – used to be – an experience. They used to make brilliant window displays for Christmas – and throughout the year – that created the wonder that awaited inside.

Now what’s inside are deep discounts (which the web matches anyway), last-minute stuff, and stuff a customer needs right now. And, unfortunately, like newspapers, major retailers have become abysmally similar, with very little distinction from one brand to the other, the very distinction that, in bygone days, made customers loyal to Macy’s or Gimbel’s or Hudson’s or Dayton’s.

It should be noted that no one is really loyal to Amazon or any other internet retailer – customers move through the net motivated by deals, not an experience. Amazon is hot right now, but could cease being relevant in a heartbeat. Think MySpace.

Of course, stores themselves can also become – are also becoming! – irrelevant in a flash. If Sears sells off Craftsman, as planned, it’s dead.

Physical store retailers need to double down on their strengths: the experience rather than a stuff purveyor, an expertise in distinctive merchandizing rather than a be-all clone, gift-wrapping rather than shrink-wrapping.

Instead, brick-and-mortar retailers seem to be doing what everybody else is doing: investing in the web. That, I believe, is one click away from disaster.

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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