retail is dead

The retail shopping business is literally being erased in the face of unprecedented:

environmental degradation
political unrest
socioeconomic distress
multicultural confusion

Store2These four factors are enmeshed; even a slight jostle in one, produces changes in the others. These upheavals are changing everything, and so of course they’re changing retail shopping, and how we shop for clothing. I’m going to share what I’ve learned in the past few years. 

Retail is one of the canaries in the coal mine, one of the things we could have been paying more attention to, to better understand what’s going on in society at large.

After all, we are a nation of chronic shoppers. 

You already know what some of the changes in retail are, you’ve probably been involved with the biggest one, online shopping. We’re creatures of sophistication and access, we no longer have to go places to see, buy, and, to a certain extent, experience new and beautiful things: they’re at our fingertips.

One minute we can be looking at Venus de Milo, the next shopping for a Prada bag, and then we can be ziplining through a rainforest.

All done courtesy of your laptop, the one you bought in the the Store, the one that looks like (and sometimes actually was) a church. Apple stores, with their genius bars, are a relatively recent phenomenon that we’re all accustomed to now. No going back now; there’s more disruption to come.

In the suburbs, the malls are dying.

They’re dinosaurs, big hulks spoiling the view, losing their anchor stores empty and uninteresting to all but gangs of roaming teenagers. Interestingly, though, they may be becoming something else, hybrid community centers. The anchors are being replaced by grocery stores like Whole Foods. Emergency medical stops and daycare are moving in.

Downtown, Macy’s can no longer handle and sustain selling mountains of fast fashion and other mass-produced stuff. It can’t afford the cost of operation, and it can’t keep up with the more focused brand-name stores.

Wasn’t it interesting when Kellyanne Conway called Ivanka Trump’s fashion line “stuff?”

Isn’t that accurate, though: how many of us really need that twentieth pair of pumps? After awhile it all just becomes stuff

Independent clothing stores? Vintage is still doing well, and will probably continue to, but small makers, even successful ones, are having to band together and collaborate with others to survive.

One of my favorite places to shop is a store called the No 97 Store, “a collective of women bound together by the common pursuit of creating ethically-produced clothing for the modern woman, with a love of craft and a sensitivity for the environment, and for community, family, and spirituality.”


Long Live Retail

“If your products are not in sync with a higher set of values,
then you aren’t going to survive in this business.”

Francois-Henri Pinault

Francois-Henri Pinault, the CEO of Kering and husband of actor Salma Hayek, talking about the fashion business in general.

It won’t be business as usual when the political landscape changes as radically as it just did.

We can’t wish ourselves back to a Mad Men world of cozy comfort and isolated plenty. 

Most of us are spending less time shopping and more time planning for an increasingly unknowable future. We want to spend more time and money on experiences and less on things.

We’re becoming more political about everything we buy, from t-shirts to sweaters. Most of us can’t afford either the high-end garments, or the waste of fast fashion that doesn’t last. Organic cotton and more sustainable fibers, such as alpaca, feel like political statements in and of themselves—they’re not just for hipsters anymore.

The terms local and locally sourced no longer apply just to the tomatoes in your Caprese salad. Today you want to know where your silk came from, and who actually sewed the blouse, because it matters.

Destination shopping is shopping as entertainment or with an element of entertainment thrown in, and that trend is going to continue. I recently attended an event at an Eileen Fisher store featuring the authors of a book on aging. This past holiday season saw more wine, parties, musicians, and other things to do and partake of in retail stores than ever.  

Brand partnerships and small venues offering a novel mix of services are also going to entice shoppers. For example, another of my favorite shopping spaces in New York is made up of a coffeeshop, a bookstore/florist, and a brand name clothing store.

We’re spending less time aimlessly “shopping around.” We’re saving our wandering for the Park. In the future, we’ll be even more specific, targeting venues that are conveniently located in areas that jive with our lifestyle and aesthetic.

When buying online is largely easy and hassle-free, the cattle line customer service at a Gap store seems wholly unnecessary. In the future, customer service is going to mean more than shuffling a customer from dressing room to the point-of-sale and out the door.

To survive, stores are going to have to provide a higher level and different kind of customer service in a more egalitarian atmosphere. 

While more “frictionless” checkout systems are going to make retail staff more superfluous, I see them becoming more like hosts and hostesses in a good restaurant. As shoppers become more savvy, staff are going to have to be able to answer more and more complex questions.

Increased diversity and multiculturalism mean a company can’t single-mindedly cater just to its “target” customer. Retail will need to put more thought into how it deals with diversity from start to finish. What’s your advertising and merchandising about? Who does it address?

Are your mannequins still stick-thin, six-feet tall, with 20 inch waists? On your website and catalog, are all the women in it white blondes with long hair?

How long can we ignore the fact that the faces of retail staff seldom resemble the faces online and in catalogs?

Honestly, I welcome a lot of these changes. I still like to shop, but my tastes, needs, and beliefs are changing. You’re not going to never set foot in a place outside your home called a store, where you can see, touch, try on, and even buy clothes. The instant gratification we receive from that experience isn’t going away.

It’s just that soon it’ll be very different…




  • Leslie says:

    Agreed. Even for myself…I require less and less and see this change nationally…as the “growing up” of America. We have lost our innocence.

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Leslie, It’s good isn’t it, just realizing that we need far less than we have? I suppose we have lost our innocence, or was it just ignorance, parading around in her cheap, store bought “finery?” Love your writing. More? xx

  • So true, love your insights I’m even participating in a Mini Maker’s Faire in my local mall, doing a day long draping and drafting demonstration. The times they are a changin!

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Jesse, It’s interesting exactly how they’re changing. I like the combination of high and low technology, using sophisticated machines to make simple, well designed products. Using the internet to sell homemade bread! Young entrepreneurs get this stuff really well, and I love working with them. They’re always asking how they can make something good and lasting. How can we solve a problem, do it well, and harm less? Love it.

  • Renee says:

    Yes, this is so true…but it makes me very sad..I long for the stores of my youth. Why haven’t the big name stores been paying attention and catering to us shoppers instead of turning us away…

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Renee, I’m so curious, what stores exactly do you long for? What was it about them that you liked? I’m not sure the stores are turning us away, but I do think that the speed of everything is detrimental to good, incremental change for the better. Tell us about your favorite stores?

  • Haralee says:

    From your finger tips to my customers!! When I first started my company many people complained about the prices and did not care that it is made in the USA and locally and a portion of every sale is donated to charity. They just wanted deals. 12 years later at last we have customers shop our on- line store because of our values and they are diligent of where they spend their retail dollars! 12 years ago Organic groceries was thought for the wealthy or a fad. Oh how times change!

    • Anita Irlen says:

      Haralee, I think if something makes sense, a “tipping point” occurs eventually. Do we want clean, healthy food for everyone? Yes. Do we want good quality, lasting garments that don’t abuse people or the environment? Yes. I believe we’re coming to a tipping point. Who knows if it will really be soon enough to save enough environment and resources for enough people. You were and continue to be ahead of the curve. Congratulations!

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