Comment: Stores aren't dying - retailers are killing them

So, first off, I think I owe a public apology to Kevin Swanwick of Manhattan Associates. I was on a panel at Future Stores in Seattle, of which Kevin was moderating. And I behaved badly.

The truth is, I sat in the audience all morning before our panel session, and the more I heard retailers speak, the angrier I got. In between sessions, there were little mini-speeches (read: advertisements) from the sponsors, and too many people got up and opened with the idea that stores aren’t going anywhere.

I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching all of the political talking heads pontificating on one Mr. Donald Trump. “Stores will never die!” sounds an awful lot like “Trump will never be the Republican nominee!” And I realise I’m standing on the border of mixing politics and business, but love him or hate him, you can’t deny that an awful lot of people have spent an awful lot of time claiming that he would never be what he presumptively is today.

And the more that retailers and industry participants say “Stores will never die!” the more I feel like they doth protest too much.

Don’t get me wrong – I have a soft spot for Future Stores. Back when WBR was contemplating the show, I encouraged them to go for it, because there just isn’t another conference like it – focused on stores. I’m in no way blaming them for producing bland, sanitised content, like how hand-crafted wrought iron fixtures somehow express the elan of a brand. It’s not their fault, it’s retailers’ faults. They are the ones who refuse to talk about the hard questions facing the store today.

Which meant, by noon at the conference, I was simmering. The audience was sleep walking through the most important opportunity to discuss the future of the store of that week, this month, maybe even this year. And when I got my turn to have my say, I maybe was a little animated about it.

So, pundits who claim the store will never die, you are correct. The store will never die. But if retailers keep on believing that this means they have no imperative to change how they think about stores, the role stores play in the shopping experience, the economics of stores, and even more fundamentally, how much transformation is coming to the retail business, of which 90% still does indeed happen in stores, then stores won’t have to die, because retailers’ oblivious self-congratulatory ignorance about stores will kill them all off.

We’re already seeing exactly how fragile the store is. Sure, Macy’s can blame the weather. But the cold hard reality is that Macy’s has been leading the charge in omnichannel and they’re still vulnerable. We’ve watched millennial demands for relevancy practically wipe out the teen retail category, and mainstream retail is next. Take Toys R Us – the last category killer standing in toys – as soon as millennials have kids, that miserable store experience will bring down that company, unless they do something drastic which I highly doubt they will.

What’s wrong with stores? Let me count the ways:

Stores are in trouble, people! The store of the future will not look like the category killer big boxes of today. They simply cannot. The economics of omnichannel won’t support it. You can stick your head in the sand and point to charts that show 90% of retail still happens in the store in the US. But the economic model of the store today is already taking out the weakest in the industry – Sports Authority being the latest casualty. So sure, some stores will survive. But will they be YOUR stores? If you don’t think the store is in trouble, then I’m pretty sure it won’t be your stores that make it. Am I passionate about preventing that kind of future? You bet.

This article originally appeared on The RSR Research website. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission. 

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