Saturday, January 12, 2013

Retail Woes

Logos from store websites

I feel bad about these retail stores on the brink of closing: Abercrombie, Sears, the Gap  ("Where you might not shop in 2013," Yahoo news, Jan. 11, 2012). .I just read that Penny's and Radio Shack, and several others, are in trouble too.

I don't understand the business of retail, except to know it can be almost as precarious as opening a new restaurant. And online massive open platforms, including for shopping, are making bricks-and-mortar institutions across the board in every sector obsolete.

But I grew up with Sears, when it was Sears and Roebuck and  had a fabulous catalog and Christmas Wish edition.  My grandkids think Abercrombie is a fun store, dark and thumping; they have several t-shirts with its name blazoned on them.  And the Gap, well, it's a family store, too, sporty  casual clothing of quality, jeans, sweaters, and tops for men and women, young and old.

Maybe it has to do with changing fashions?  The tech revolution? Spreading online access, worldwide? Even the village of Starobelsk in eastern Ukraine, where I lived for two years, is now wired!

With Sears I can see that its old stores in old buildings are no longer up-to-date and futuristic-looking enough to appeal to the younger digital generation that likes modernity.  But Abercrombie is pretty hip, isn't it?  And the Gap can be re-created for the future, can't it?

We live in a transient society, ever-changing, ever mobile, ever frenzied. Brand loyalty, like job loyalty, is frivilous, a relic of the past. Convenience, conspicuous online buying, hipness matter more than ever.

Amazon.com
The famed economist Thonstein Veblen wrote about this at the turn of the century, the 20th century that is, in his "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899).    He wrote about "conspicuous consumption" and status-seekers well before journalists and social critics like Vance Packard ("The Status Seekers" and "Hidden Persuaders").  In the tradition of Veblen himself, the post-WWII social critics hit the culture of the 1950s in the solar plexus.

Technology and spiriling digital innovation are doing the same thing today.  Hewlett Packer author Ken_Howard, in "Retailers consider Digital commerce," HP Discover, Jan. 10, 2012, wrote that:
      "The retail industry is facing a tall set of challenges as it enters 2013. The  convergence of new trends in technology, economics and society are compelling retailers to transform their enterprise around the modern consumer....In particular, retailers must understand and adapt to modern consumers whose loyalty hinges on the latest experience or peer review—all while making IT work for the business, improving the supply chain, ensuring data security, and managing costs." 

I guess that's it in a nutshell, the words of an IT guru for today's retailers. Echoes of Veblen. 
The computer and the internet, mobile phones, iphones, ipads,  nooks. other technologies, and their interconnections in new ways, are changing the way we live, work, educate (MOOCs for example) and....shop.    Nor is there any end in sight for these inventions, discoveries, and explosive agents of change, except for the retail stores that are doomed to failure because they didn't change fast enough for the times, and were left in the dust by the digital revolution, like American newspapers (NYT), magazines (Newsweek) and print media in general.     

Some people think that educational institutions of higher learning are not far behind. 

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