Who killed retail?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I thought I would never see the “going out of business” signs again – especially at my local mall.

It has been ten years, but here they are again.

The stock market is (mostly) steadily climbing, employment number are up and yes, the economy is improving – at least some politicians and pundits say it is.

But the view from “main street” tells a different story.

Stores are closing at a rate not seen since, well, I could say a long time ago, even though it seems like it just happened.

As with every economic, ahem, difficulty, the underlying causes are (slightly) different. Sales are strong. Apple is the first company to ever reach one trillion US dollars in value. Amazon, as of early September is the second.

The digital/ cyber world is going strong. In China alone, over 500 million online sales (1*) occur each month (that is more than the entire population of the United States and a couple European countries combined).

By some measures, China is already the world’s largest economy. By 2050, China will easily, by every standard, be the world’s largest economy. Ever.

In 2050, India will be the second largest global economy. That leaves the USA at number three.

Projections, as Yogi Berra put it, especially about the future, are not always reliable, Forbes magazine had an article questioning this prospect, but I have to admit that I found it quite unconvincing.  (2*)

The author posits America’s “general equality of condition among the people” and a government that “protects civil liberties and economic freedoms, and takes care of the “commons,” sectors of the economy where free markets are inadequate or fail altogether: the provision of public and semi-public goods, and the protection of the public from health, traffic, occupational, and environmental hazards.”

Those may be the essential elements of any durable, fair and functional economy, but to say that the majority, or even a solid minority, of American workers has anything like a solid faith that these attributes are alive and well in today’s economy is the ultimate pipe dream.

The idea of “job security” is a sick joke to anyone under 35 – or even 40.

The “gig economy” is a survival necessity as much as it might be a career trend.

If you want to see a real “work ethic” in action – go to China, or perhaps anywhere in Asia.

They literally work as if their lives depended on it. And over the millennia of floods, famines and political upheaval, they often have.

Americans, on the other hand, have a very different history and set of accumulated assumptions about work, money and economic opportunity.

Thomas Jefferson, a man who prospered on the fruits of slavery, acknowledged the “miserable condition” of slaves, but was far more concerned about the impact of slavery on the slave owners and the larger culture.

Jefferson’s fear was that the South would never match the North economically precisely because of their view of work – in the slave states, slaves worked and slave owners didn’t.

There was a clearly defined aristocratic leisure class and a (much maligned) working class.

The “idle rich” was no abstraction – the wealthier one was, the less work they did, and the poorer one was, the more they worked.  (3*)

It is difficult to imagine a more toxic belief system. But somehow we have absorbed it and we all know that  the wealthiest people will be on a golf course, on a yacht or at some exclusive restaurant or resort –  certainly not on the factory floor or behind a counter.

Don’t look for calluses on the hands of a millionaire. (4*)

The power and place of retail

Retail used to be one of the foundational “first jobs” for almost any career field.

It might still hold that place for some. But as a near universal first grown-up job, it has evaporated for most young people.

In fact, for many young people, the idea of a “job” meaning a 40 hour a week commitment to a single employer, is an artifact of a barbaric age of faxes, land lines and hard copy resumes.

The underlying foundations of, and assumptions about, the world of work are changing faster (and deeper) than most of us can keep track of.

Retail, for better or worse, is where customers, products and store representatives meet. The experience can be rewarding or astoundingly frustrating. This is where direct customer service is learned – sometimes painfully.

For a variety of reasons, young people are missing out on this pivotal, potentially life-changing experience.

People like consistency. Whether it’s a store or a restaurant, they want to come in and see what you are famous for. – Mickey Drexler, Former CEO and current Chairman of J.Crew Group 

The now-closed Sears store at the at the Tacoma Mall was a historic "anchor" store since the mall was built. Photo: Morf Morford
The now-closed Sears store at the at the Tacoma Mall was a historic “anchor” store since the mall was built.  Photo: Morf Morford

As I am writing this piece, two news stories emerged that touch on, if not exaggerate, our shifting understanding and appreciation of person-to-person commerce.

You could make the argument that no aspect of business is more “American” than sales. Consider the great Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman” or the TV series Mad Men as examples of the pinnacle of American values in pursuit of personal success.

So what do we make of these two recent news stories, these events that clarify and put front and center what we value, believe in and work for?

The first story is the attempt to “work-shame” “Cosby” star Geoffrey Owens for working (yes, retail) at a Trader Joe’s store.

This was an international story (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45411561z0) not so much because of the facts (celebrities taking “normal” jobs between gigs is actually fairly common) but because the cable news and social media sites went to such great lengths to “shame” the actor for working at a job any one of us might have.

In a saner era, such a petty non-story would not get the “traction” to make international headlines.

But somehow working in retail (even Trader Joe’s!) is a sign of personal, if not moral failure.

The second news story that speaks to our enduring values that are somehow evaporating in front of our eyes is the 30th anniversary Nike ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick with the statement “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” across the front.

The America I grew up in, more than perhaps anything, believed in a marketplace – of ideas and products – where each citizen, each customer, each voter was encouraged, if not impelled, to stand up for what they believed in.

We may not agree with, or even like (in the pre-Facebook sense of the word) what someone might say, but their right to say it, and the moral obligation to stand up for an unpopular cause was the hallmark of civic courage.

Like honest work, having a deeply held, uncompromising position on any topic that matters, is now automatically suspect.

Our president, with the full power of his “bully pulpit,” calls the Nike ad campaign a “terrible message.”  (5*)

In short, who killed retail?

We all did.

Too many of us chose to be lazy, sought the discount and found it cheaper online.

Like slavery, buying online made us all lazier and robbed us of our shared humanity.

I miss bookstores and trying on clothes. Iconic stores are gone. Our children will never know delights of Toys R Us, Borders Books, Radio Shack, The Limited, Circuit City and dozens more.  (6*)

Some politicians want to “bring back” coal, but retail is where the vast majority of jobs in America used to be.

Unlike the coal industry, retail jobs (and their economic activity) are almost everywhere. Their decline is  evident, but diffused. The disappearance of retail will impact us all even more directly than it already has.  (7*)

However, like vinyl, there just might be a retail revival on its way as more and more of us realize what we are missing.


(1*)  For more on the sobering, yet stunning, view of the future of online retail, take a look at this TED Talk

(2*)  You can see the Forbes article here

(3*)  From Friends Divided, by Gordon Wood, Penguin Press 2017 (especially pages 210-212)

(4*)   But if you want to look like you do real work, for only $425 you can buy custom fitted, pre-muddied jeans from Nordstrom

(5*)  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/04/donald-trump-colin-kaepernick-nike-ad-campaign-response

(6*)  A depressing list of 50 stores gone forever can be found here

(7*)  https://www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/523428/?