Retail Isn’t Dying, It’s Being Revolutionized

By Kish Rajan

There’s almost nothing more depressing than the sight of a dying mall. If you’ve ever walked through one of these places, you know the sadness of the empty store fronts, the echoing atriums and the going out of business sales at the few remaining shops.

It’s enough to make anyone think that we’re witnessing the end of in-person shopping as we transition to online purchasing. But don’t let those sad malls fool you. Retail is far from dead — but it is evolving in ways that could benefit both shoppers and workers.

First, it’s worth noting that the death of brick and mortar shopping has been greatly exaggerated. E-commerce only accounts for 10% of retail overall. According to NPD, 95% of Americans shop at Wal-Mart while only 42% shop at Amazon. And those dying malls? They’re more a sign of overdevelopment than a harbinger of the obsolescence of retail. The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population between 1970 and 2015 according to research from Cowen & Co. What we’re seeing now is more of a rightsizing than a decline.

And many malls are reinventing themselves. Take the Westfield Mall outside of Los Angeles. Located in the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley, it’s often almost impossible to find parking there on the weekends. Once a sleepy shopping center stocked with the usual suspects, the mall is now home to outposts of hot Asian retailers like SST&C out of Taiwan and Muji, a Japanese lifestyle store.

You see this kind of rethinking of retail everywhere you go. Online stores like Warby Parker and Modcloth are popping up in real life around the country. At the same time classic brick and mortar shops, like Nordstrom and Best Buy, are using their physical stores to help drives sales online and vice versa.

This kind of creativity is exciting but it is just part of the overall evolution in retail. As more shopping moves online, it’s inevitable that we’ll see a change in the overall demand for different kinds of workers. Just look at Amazon Go, the online retailer’s latest foray into the real world. The Settle-based supermarket will work completely by automation. You just take what you need and leave and Amazon charges your account without requiring any human interaction at all. It’s a delight for shoppers but could dramatically reshape the number and types of jobs in future grocery stores.

As low-paid jobs fade, they’ll be replaced by higher-paying jobs in both physical and online retail. A recent study by the Progressive Policy Institute shows that while retail saw a gain of 27,000 jobs last year, ecommerce jobs climbed by 97,000. Those ecommerce jobs pay an average $21.13 compared to an average $16.65 per hour in general retail.

But the trick will be moving displaced workers into better jobs that will pay more. It’s naïve to think that a laid-off cashier in a small town in Alabama can just pick up and move to a higher paying ecommerce job that might be located in Washington state.

In order for the new economy to benefit everyone, we have to make sure these new jobs are available to everyone. We can do that by ensuring technology jobs are spread throughout the country, not just concentrated in places like Silicon Valley and Boston. Smaller towns can become tech hubs. Just look at what’s happening in Augusta, Ga., where a group of entrepreneurs are building incubators and helping to create a tech-friendly environment.

We also need to laser focus on retraining workers. That means tech companies and government working together to come up with smart new ways to train people. One good example of this is TechHire Eastern Kentucky. Launched by Ankur Gopal, the CEO of Interapt out of Louisville, Ky., with support from the local government, the program trains people through class study and apprenticeships to move into tech jobs.

If we are to successfully move to the next phase of retail, which will be a mix of brick-and-mortar and ecommerce, we need to make sure there are new and better opportunities for workers. Those opportunities will come from creative new shops as well as good-paying tech and warehouse jobs. It’s a mix that will be good for customers, and good for employees.

Kish Rajan is Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates.

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