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Retailers facing near-death experiences. But they always are and most survive

Try navigating the parking lot of one of the regional malls on a Saturday afternoon in the coming weeks to judge whether no one goes to malls any more.
Try navigating the parking lot of one of the regional malls on a Saturday afternoon in the coming weeks to judge whether no one goes to malls any more. Staff Photographer

Retailers enter their most crucial month — the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas dash — with their industry in turmoil, facing questions about the economy, competition, customer preferences and habits and how many will be around when Holiday Shopping Season 2018 begins.

In other words, normal conditions.

In retailing, it’s always something.

People aren’t showing up because the weather’s bad … or it’s good. It’s a long holiday weekend and everyone’s gone … or it’s a normal weekend and people are busy doing other stuff. There’s a hot new product that is drawing everyone to the stores … or is distracting people from buying anything else.

Locally, the Seahawks playing, or not, is often a useful go-to excuse for weak sales.

Add to those cyclical, short-term problems the long-term existential threat of the internet and it becomes apparent that a placid, even upbeat prognosis for retailing’s future is an unusual state of affairs.

And if you don’t agree, let’s meet up and do some field research. Let’s meet at Rhodes Brothers … on second thought, how about Frederick & Nelson … no wait, Montgomery Ward.

Each of those bricks-and-mortar retailers, and thousands more great and small, local and national, succumbed long before the rise of online retailing (although someone bought the Montgomery Ward brand and now runs it as a strictly online venture).

That’s a point worth remembering because the rise of online retailing has been depicted as a phenomenon the likes of which retailing has never seen before.

Not so.

The history of retailing is the story of major change, from mail-order catalogs and department stores to chain stores, suburban malls, discount retailers, big-box and category-killer stores. Cataclysmic though it has been for many categories of retailing, online is just one more chapter in that saga.

Here’s another overlooked point about retailing’s series of transformations. Whatever the new style or structure of retailing was, it didn’t replace the old ways of operating. Chain and department stores snared a lot of market share from smaller independents, and their ranks were thinned, but they didn’t become extinct.

The suburban shopping mall did major damage to downtown shopping districts in many cities (Tacoma being a prime example) but it didn’t kill all of them; Seattle managed to hang on to a viable urban-core retailing sector.

Now it’s the mall that’s supposedly an endangered species; some have closed and others will follow. But try navigating the parking lot of one of the regional malls on a Saturday afternoon in the coming weeks to judge whether no one goes to malls any more.

Now Amazon is supposedly going to do to Walmart et al what the latter did to small local retailers. At the risk of making a prediction someone can unearth in a decade to judge its accuracy, here’s one: They will battle each other fiercely, and might take share out of one another and other retailers. But they won’t kill off other forms of retailing.

A recently released Washington State University survey on consumer retailing habits got a lot of attention for its findings on shoppers cooling toward the whole Black Friday frenzy. Perhaps of more interest were the responses that indicate shoppers plan to do a lot of mixing and matching in their holiday shopping — some online, some in stores, some with local independents, some with chains.

Physical retailers are all too aware of the practice of “showrooming,” in which shoppers check out an item in a store, then go home and order it online. The WSU survey mentions the opposite practice — “webrooming,” in which shoppers research items online, then buy them at a store.

What’s happened in retailing also happened at banks. Between telephone and then online services, many customers haven’t set foot in a bank branch in years.

But bank branches didn’t go away. Banks might not be building as many of them, but they still find value in opening and operating physical branches while offering those other services.

And what’s happening in banking is happening in retailing.

Even as Walmart and other national chains work furiously to build their online presence, Amazon is making forays into physical retailing. It’s not just the megaplayers who are trying to establish themselves in multiple channels. Even the smallest retailers are realizing they need a website that allows ecommerce, even if only for ordering items to be picked up at the store.

In the aftermath of the recession, people were warned not to expect anything more than a sluggish recovery, that being the “new normal.” That’s what consumers might be telling us this year about retailing.

Don’t expect an end to the turmoil or of certain styles and types of retailing. Upheaval is not just the new normal in retailing, it’s the old normal.

Whenever the Next Big Thing sure to shake up retailing arrives, consumers will want it — and all the other ways they’ve been buying stuff as well.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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