Friday, November 23, 2012

Let’s Talk Retail

Since it’s impossible to hide from the fact of this self-imposed follow-up holiday (and yes it is a holiday – since hardly anyone works today) BLACK FRIDAY, I am wondering why retail gets such a bad review these days.

Every politician and city father is desperate for a great retail-shopping season, which traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until Christmas Eve. Now it’s anyone guess. Thanksgiving is now toast; it is like a pre-party dinner warm up and strategy session prior to the trip to 10:00 run to Wal-Mart with all the aunts and cousins. Sad.

The Occupy Best-Buy Movement
When the volume of retail dollars is shown on graphs and charts on the TV news (with hordes of shoppers queued holding small children over their heads) what they really are saying is, “See that number, multiply it by 8.5%, that’s the state’s piece of the action. More action, more pieces.” And lord knows we need more pieces.

Now that most large retailers (called big box retail for the obvious reason – 250,000 square feet of consumer bliss) have turned into strange reflections of the Occupy Movement with hundreds if not thousands camped out for a week before BLACK FRIDAY (now a week long holiday for them), all to buy stuff.

Shopping can be fun, adventuresome, enlightening, disturbing, revealing, satisfying, and confusing. Must be that hunter-gatherer thing. Bag a big-screen TV, stand with foot on the box, like Teddy Roosevelt, and show the world your prize. Take a snap with your new 8MP Android phone – send it to all your FB friends, go viral. Conquest can be fun.

But now, there is a blandness creeping in the retail scene. I used to travel to see new things, find cool and interesting stuff. Now you walk through the Macy’sBloomingdalesNorsdtrumPennySears store, much is all the same. The same stuff you will find in Marks & Spencer and Harrods in London, Bon Marche in Paris, and probably Beijing (where most of the stuff comes from anyway). So what is a retailer to do?

First they are adding living rooms and comfortable seating, “Come, stay, enjoy. Coffee? Much to choose from. Food? Around the corner. Bathroom? The finest.” Someday you may want to live here. There was a time, when I was a young designer of retail centers, the client said, “No seating! If they sit, they’re not shopping.” Now, move in, stay, bring the family, the game will be on at 1:00.

Next, concierge services. The Grove in LA (amongst others) has a drive-up valet and they park your car and will even wash it while you browse the stores. More of this will be coming. They even sell cars in the malls – Santana Row in San Jose, California has a Tesla dealership.

The big malls (Mall of America, et al) have motels and hotels connected to them. Sleep, Love, Shop, Cool.

Wi-FI, schmi-fi. You MUST have WiFi, work-tables, power outlets, and couches. Period.

Casinos are now more than just places to add to the coffers of the state, they are expanded their retail where they are now competitive with local retail centers. There will be more of this, in fact at one large Indian casino, I was told, they are investigating major retail stores inside the casino. Imagine a Macy’s entry right next to the craps table, what more could you want?

Restaurants are the next big things in retail; the food court has gone nuclear. Todd English seems to won this round for now, he’s more ubiquitous than Tommy Bahama. Ethnic foods are huge, fast food huger, all-you-can-eat buffets – category killers. Where restaurants used to be stuck in the corners (i.e. foodcourts) they will now be moved into pricier locations, they will become attractions instead of just necessaries. Watch for more big names to jump in, Guy Fieri and many more from the Food channel. Not necessarily because they are good, but because they are known. In fact, now people actually arrange their vacations around Food channel restaurants. How many Triple D restaurants have you been to?

Retail itself will continue on its sad course, same-old, same-old. We shop for price not product, and I’m no different. Went looking for a slow-cooker the other evening, went to Crate and Barrel, Sur La Table, Williams Sonoma – all too pricey. Macys, perfect and at half the price. That’s what’s happening in retail. Is there a chance for the bespoke clothier? In a mall – not a chance, yet.

For the last forty years, since the first wave of enclosed malls swept the country, there has been a revision to the retail model every ten to fifteen years. We are now seeing the latest in the village square concept: outside, walkable streets, shop after shop doors, street front windows, big boxes set in the corners, restaurants and entertainment built into the fabric, just like the town where your grandparents lived. There is something warm and fuzzy about the place – hard to do, but works. Good example is Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga.

Is the mall dead? Hardly. But as the economy changes so will these retail dreadnaughts. Denser retail, more leisurely, richer interiors, more natural light, more elegant parking garages, and better treatment of customers (now guests). This is the most competitive business model in America: wringing a buck out of the consumer, if you can make them happy, they will do it gladly.

Stay tuned . . . . .

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