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Public Policy

From Stores to the Stars, Retail is Retail

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This article was published in the July 2016 issue of STORES Magazine.

Matthew Shay

Matthew Shay

The headlines are clichés: the death of retail, the death of the department store, the death of the shopping mall.

But don’t let headlines fool you — retail is bigger than ever. The biggest thing the obituaries have in common is that they are all premature.

Retail is our nation’s largest private employer, supporting 42 million jobs, employing one in four Americans and generating 20 percent of gross domestic product. In the last four years, retail employment has grown by half a million jobs and is expected to grow by nearly another million by 2022.

These jobs aren’t just sales positions. Retail employs a quarter-million software developers and programmers, 200,000 designers, as many engineers as Silicon Valley and as many financial experts as Wall Street.

So why the persistent headlines? The answer is that headline writers haven’t kept up with retail.

Retail has always been dynamic, adapting to changes in taste, style and technology not to just meet but to exceed customers’ expectations. And that has never been truer.

The most visible changes have come in digital retail — the e-commerce and mobile shopping that gives consumers unlimited freedom to browse, buy and have products delivered with just a click.

But online isn’t driving bricks-and-mortar retailers out of business. Instead, most major retailers today are multichannel, using the strengths of each channel to make the whole sector stronger. Some are closing stores as more of their business moves online, and some local boutiques are using digital to reach more customers. Pure-play retailers are adding bricks to their clicks and opening stores. Time and time again, retailers of all sizes and styles are finding a new balance.

Modern retailers are platform-agnostic. Whether it’s a store, computer or smartphone, they want to make it easy to buy. Instead of relying on customers to find the store, retailers are taking the store to them.

The dominance of digital, however, is not as complete as headlines suggest. The Commerce Department says digital has grown 275 percent over the past decade, and could grow 9 percent this year — three times overall retail sales. But digital is still only 7.5 percent of total retail sales.

Physical stores are also adapting technology to personalize the shopping experience. One retailer uses smart watches to give associates personalized data, preferences and shopping history to better serve customers. Stores are now the pickup point for buy online, pick up in store programs. Stores are also serving as distribution centers for rapid to-the-doorstep delivery of products ordered online.

What’s the bottom line? Writing didn’t cease to be writing as it progressed from stone tablets to parchment to paper to computers and finally back to tablets — the electronic kind. And retail is retail regardless of whether it’s conducted in a store, through the mail, online or in some form yet to be dreamed of. Whatever its form, retailers will always be here to serve their top VIP — the customer.

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