The times, they are a-changin’. And I’m not sure that it’s for the better.
By my count, at least 19 retail chains have announced plans in recent weeks to close thousands of their stores in communities around the country in 2017, throwing a vast number of employees out of work. It’s a full-scale retail epidemic, but it hasn’t really registered with the public yet.
The casualty list seems to grow by the day:
150 Sears and Kmart stores being shuttered including the Kmart in Sioux City, and the whole company in jeopardy. As Sears admits, “substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
JC Penny shutting down 138 stores including the one that anchors Crossroads Mall in Fort Dodge, eliminating more than 5,000 jobs.
Radio Shack closing 552 stores including four in Iowa, GameStop closing 138, Macy’s 100, Payless Shoes as many as 1,000. Aeropostale 154, Chicos 120, American Eagle 100, Jos. A. Banks/Men’s Warehouse 250, Office Depot 300, MC Sports 68. The Limited, HH Gregg, American Apparel locking doors, and the list goes on. Expect it to grow in the weeks to come.
The country will soon be dotted with boarded-up big box stores, malls will be struggling to survive with dark spaces sticking out like lost teeth. A few of these companies will probably be looking at bankruptcy shortly.
We may be looking at the demise of retailing as we’ve known it. Sudden and final. I’m surprised people aren’t a little more concerned.
Not that it’s unexpected. Brick-and-mortar companies just haven’t adapted fast enough to compete in a digital marketplace where people can order anything and everything without getting out of bed, or even lifting a finger as they can now bark it into their Amazon Echo-type device.
This phenomenon is not new to rural Iowa, of course. Before there was the online shopping onslaught, there was Walmart, which a generation ago came along with unmatchable economy of scale and sounded the death knell for other stores.
Before Walmart, Storm Lake had a variety of small department stores - Alco, Pamida, Sernett’s, Ben Franklin, Pennys. They all disappeared pretty rapidly. The recent closing of BV Stationary leaves another void, though Bomgaars has done well and competes well enough to open a new store.
Shopping itself has changed. People used to pass an afternoon downtown, strolling around to the stores, as much to talk to people as to buy anything. Now people go to the store they need for the item they need, in and out fast, because they might miss something on Netflix. Christmas shopping for a lot of people means a trip to the mall in Des Moines, Sioux City or the Twin Cities.
Maybe the worst thing we lose in an online world is socialization. I’m not sure it’s a great thing to never have to leave your house for anything.
I also have to admit to a little nostalgia here. When I was a kid, going to Sears was a happening, if you can believe that. They had a little train to ride, and the most exciting part of starting a school year was a beloved new pair of blue-with-white-stripes Sears Winner II tennis shoes. My first college job was assembling bikes at Sears. How do you fit a kid properly on their first bike online, I wonder.
I’m not a huge fan of buying things via computer. I want to see and touch what I’m buying. And I don’t want to ship a pair of jeans back and forth four times to find a pair that fits. I hate buying anything with a credit card - I prefer to fork over cold, hard cash out of my pocket, which tends to make me think twice before I make an impulse buy.
And frankly, I like to shop in my own town. I was proud last Christmas that I was able to buy all the gifts for my whole family without ever leaving Lake Avenue. I know and like the people at our stores here. They donate to every school program and civic event. Show me the day that eBay and Amazon do that.
I don’t think there’s any saving these big dinosaur retailers. The stores take too much overhead to operate, and they can’t match the prices of the discounters and online companies and still be profitable. They’re going folks, and they are going fast.
Before we panic, though, consider. In change, there is often a hidden opportunity.
As the big chain retailers disappear, there will be opportunity for unique, local little shops to emerge.
If you can find a niche that online doesn’t cover well, and you can give the kind of personal customer service it can’t, you can start up and thrive. A whole new era of retail creativity can open up to us.
We’ve got our foot in that door already - a couple of shops that sell eclectic collections of gifts and also flowers or live plants. One that sells Hallmark type stuff, but also kitchen wares, college memorabilia and toys. One that deals in the unique combo of antiques and homemade candy. An art and framing store that doubles as an artists’ fair. A boot shop that added a clothes store. Quirky little coffee shops, cafes and ethnic eateries with flair and friendly service. A make-your-own ceramic shop.
You can’t beat online with a giant warehouse, you can’t out-volume them. But you can best them with creativity.
We would love to see more of that in our town, we’d love to see strolling shoppers downtown again. A makeover of the atmosphere downtown is also overdue. We need to push for precious storefront space to be used for local retail rather than office spaces. We need to encourage more trendy apartment housing development in the upstairs level, and incubate retail entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, before you head for one of those malls, give some thought to whether you could make that purchase in your own town. If you want retail locally, you better use retail locally.