Overcoming the Fear
For years, we’ve been writing about the unique challenges faced by an industry in transition. They’ve often been excessively painful, and they’ve certainly been tumultuous. And for months, we’ve been writing about an economy in crisis. No one is even willing to guess where the bottom is.
For retailers, in particular, it’s become something of a siege mentality. When you look at the store closings and bankruptcies — some estimates place the destruction at about 15% of all retail locations just vaporizing by the end of 2009 — you can understand why. (By the way, we’ve all been talking about overstored markets for the last 20 years, even as developers rolled out new shopping centers and retailers rushed forward to pay excessive prices for the real estate. Now, it’s finally hit the fan.)
I get it. These are scary times.
But retailers are now acting simply terrified — not just afraid or cautious — and it’s plainly affecting their merchandising judgments. It’s got to stop. Please. Some great merchant somewhere has to find the strength of character to bring just a little design sense, a little theater, back to their stores. Give consumers a reason to buy. Help them.
I was in one of Macy’s better stores the other day — as a customer looking to plunk down real money and buy something — and what I saw was just plain depressing. Bed after bed after bed of dull, boring, lifeless, predictable designs. Even, I’m sorry to say, in the Ralph section. Even Ralph. I left not just disappointed, but disgusted and pretty angry.
Where are all the stunning designs we saw in the showrooms last market? We know where they aren’t.
Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Kohl’s have proven themselves to be great retailers. Yet, sadly, too, their stores lately have become a repository for what seems to be the lowest common denominator. Wal-Mart’s new sets are coming out this week; let’s see how they do.
I was chatting with an industry executive about this the other day. A one-time retailer herself, she was mildly outraged by what’s happening. Here’s some of what she had to say:
“There are consumers who are really broke, and there are consumers who are really scared,” she opined. “Among the scared, there are a lot of us who can still be convinced to part with our money to make purchases. Retailers who are making the bold moves — who are making statements — are going to win. But most retailers are playing it safe."
“To find a retailer that is really alive right now, I might as well slit my wrists. These people are unbelievably scared to make a move. They’re just retrenching further and further, and they are failing in their duty to separate me from my dollar."
“The economy is bad. But it’s also become a handy thing to hide behind. There are some wonderful retailers out there, but it’s become a horrible shopping experience. There’s nothing happening. It’s boring — and in retail, that’s the greatest crime of all.”
So, now you know why she preferred anonymity.
To that I would add that we know the dollars are big and that even in good times, buyers and their groups are terrified of making mistakes. If true, I’d suggest that maybe it’s time to find another line of work. It takes more than a modicum of courage to make a merchandising statement.
I seriously doubt there’s a defense for the dull and lifeless. But if there is, I’d love to hear it and learn something new.
Retailing is tough, agonizing work even in the best of times, which these clearly are not. But if retailers continue managing their businesses only to make their numbers this quarter, if they continue managing their businesses in fear and with an eye toward minimizing sales declines, they will lose. Along with them, so too the consumers and vendors who will never have a chance to buy or sell the really spectacular stuff sitting in the showrooms. #