What Is Going On With Retail?

Do we blame Amazon? Instagram? Ourselves?

Photo credit: Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0.

In the past few days I’ve seen a lot of stories about problems in the brick-and-mortar retail industry, so let’s take a look at what’s going on:

We’re over-stored! Never mind that, for most of my life, I’ve lived in places that didn’t have a lot of stores nearby (including my current apartment; the nearest Payless is a 40-minute bus trip away). Thank goodness for Amazon and online retailers, or I’d have to spend way too many weekend afternoons riding the bus to the mall.

Oh. I guess every time I bought a pair of shoes online, I was helping to contribute to the death of retail.

“Today, convenience is sitting at home in your underwear on your phone or iPad,” [Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Christian Buss] said. “The types of trips you’ll take to the mall and the number of trips you’ll take are going to be different.”

First of all, stop making assumptions about what I’m wearing while I shop online. (It’s okay to assume that I am not wearing shoes.) Second of all, going to the mall is a chore unless you’re a teenager—and speaking of which, what are the teens up to these days?

They’re killing retail by designing and selling their own clothes. Also, Instagram is involved. Teens love Instagram.

Except that’s not exactly what’s going on here. The headline is misleading, and retail stores are still part of the teen designers’ brand strategy:

[18-year-old Millinsky’s] strategy is to use retail stores to create exclusivity — thus elevating the brand — rather than rely on them for financial stability. “We make sure that our products are sold out quickly through retailers,” he says. “We create rarity, and then — boom! — we have waves of clientele coming to our website directly, no middleman necessary.”

So we do need retailers, if only to… drive people to websites. Which makes sense. I spend a lot more time on my favorite brands’ websites than I ever do in their stores—but they wouldn’t have become my favorite brands if I hadn’t first experienced them in a brick-and-mortar location. (Taking a chance on a rando brand is like asking to get a pair of shoes that look nothing like the ones in the thumbnail.)

But what about the middlemen? They just want to know if there’s anything they can help you find today!

Ah. They’re losing their jobs.

In all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that general merchandise jobs have declined by 89,000 since Oct. 2016. That’s the largest decline since Dec. 2009, according to the report.

Well, that’s not good—and those jobs are not likely to come back, either. The Atlantic suggests that both the retail job and the retail store will be eventually transported into the backseats of self-driving cars:

Once autonomous vehicles are cheap, safe, and plentiful, retail and logistics companies could buy up millions, seeing that cars can be stores and streets are the ultimate real estate. In fact, self-driving cars could make shopping space nearly obsolete in some areas. CVS could have hundreds of self-driving minivans stocked with merchandise roving the suburbs all day and night, ready to be summoned to somebody’s home by smartphone.

Soon we won’t be able to cross the street without having to deal with a self-driving CVS minivan that just wants to know whether we have our flu shots. (Yes, I got it from the Walgreens minivan, stop honking at me.)

I will end this with a very, very terrible rework of a song that is now stuck in my head:

Amazon killed the retail store
Instagram killed the retail store
Next up are self-driving cars
We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far…