The Fall of American Retail: Don’t Let This Happen to Your Business

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The retail industry's woes have crossed the tipping point...

Already in 2017, we’ve seen these store closing announcements:

JCPenney (138 stores to be shuttered), Radio Shack (552 stores), Payless Shoes (400 stores), Macy's (68 stores), Sears and Kmart (150 stores), The Limited (250 stores), American Apparel (110 stores), BCBG (120 stores), and Staples (70 stores).

This amounts to more than 89,000 retail workers being laid off since October, with sadly many more to come.

The root cause is obvious - the unassailable competitive pressures brought on by the cost, convenience, and customization advantages of e-commerce that builds every passing year (more than $40 billion / year in online cannibalization of retails sales every year since 2013) and now probably has reached the point of no return.

Now let's put aside the cultural implications of a world of hollowed out shopping malls, boarded up down towns, job dislocation and the poignant shift from an in-person commerce model in place since the start of recorded history to us all sitting alone in our underwear and just pressing “click."

Let's put it aside because as business people our jobs are not to engage in wistful sentimentalities, but rather to address economic conditions and technological realities as they are and will be and not as perhaps we would like them to be...

...and plan and act accordingly.

And so the next time we walk by a shuttered store front - especially one of a retailer where perhaps in our youth was a particularly special place (for me it was Radio Shack) it is ok to be sad for a moment but then we must transition quickly to the passionate and even angry feeling that "This will not happen to me and my business!"

That NO our businesses will not be reduced to a statistic, to a misty water-colored memory

Instead, we will learn from the causes of the fall of traditional retail and not do those things. As in:

  • Not get into a position where legacy, high cost structures make it impossible to realistically compete with leaner, more efficient rivals. And if we are in a high cost position now, we will unwind those costs immediately because if we don't do it for ourselves, our customers flocking to lower cost providers will very painfully do it for us.
  • Not think our brands and reputations, no matter how old and sturdy they might be, will save us. Yes, it can be helpful in a trust challenged Internet world to have a known brand and sturdy reputation, but the former can quickly turn to a stodgy liability and the latter can fall apart in an instant (see Airlines, United).
  • And just not think that the particular business model we have now is going to last forever because it won't.

So if the writing on the business wall is such that your particular way of doing things is firmly in the cross hairs of the modern technological onslaught, then sometimes the most honorable and profitable (or loss mitigating) thing to do is to accept your business model as it stands now is truly doomed...

...and either radically change it or shut it down and do something else.

Now, the good news is that in the long run it is far easier to win at something that is aligned with modern progress than to fight to keep alive for “just another day” a flawed and anachronistic business model.

So no matter how stuck or old or frustrated we might be, we just gotta believe that a new and better business thing is right around the corner and is ours for the taking...

...because this is the only right kind of sentimentality for our technological age.

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