How Serious is the Talk of a Retail Apocalypse?

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This week, Netflix released a documentary about the retail clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch. A notable part of the documentary that has already reached meme status was an interviewee’s explanation of what a mall was. He described the one-time retail meccas as, “sort of a search engine you could walk through,” or, “an online catalog that’s an actual place.” 

The description lit up Twitter, with people incredulous that anyone could need the concept of a mall explained to them. However, retail shopping’s one-time prominence has significantly waned over the past two decade. Many consumers in Generation Z — and even some Millennials — may be far more accustomed to online shopping. The rise of online shopping, coupled with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has led many large shopping centers to shutter their doors from coast to coast. According to a recent CNBC report, 25% of all malls are expected to close by 2025.  

However, things may not be as doom and gloom as experts once thought. Since the beginning of 2022, the number of store closings was beginning to fall, and there had been a 3% increase in store openings. 

“Retail spaces will continue to exist, at least the more successful ones, because people are still looking for experiences outside the comforts of home,” says Henry Ma of Ricoma, a company which provides embroidery and custom apparel printing machines. 

While online retail has caused a major paradigm shift within the retail industry, that does not mean that an outright retail apocalypse is right around the corner.

Easier and Faster 

Sometimes, having an online retail space makes sense. Some products are easier to sell online, and having a brick-and-mortar space can be very expensive, especially for startup companies. The growth of online retail has been meteoric, with a huge boost coming from the rise of social media marketing. 

It can be easier to sell certain products in an online space. Running an online store can be cost-effective and easy to begin. Anyone can hop online and open their own store with little more than a domain name and a desire to start a retail business. 

Statistics show that people tend to turn to the internet for information before purchasing an item, rather than visiting a physical store. It’s easy to get a variety of information and reviews about products on the internet. 

However, studies show that there is still a desire to see and feel an item before purchasing, and that retail stores still have a place in the entire retail industrial complex. “There are plenty of instances where consumers will want to have a physical interaction with a product before they purchase it,” explains Ma. 

Getting Customers Offline and In-Store 

Business owners that offer an exceptional customer experience and stellar service will continue to keep brick and mortar retail going. Customers will remain loyal to a brand if they know they can expect top-notch service every time they associate with that company.

“Successful retailers provide an excellent experience that keeps people coming back again and again,” Ma says. “From providing top-notch customer service to the style and feel of the store and maintaining excellent products, retailers need to have a balance of all these things to entice people to come in.”

Even amidst the turmoil of the global pandemic, in 2021 store openings outpaced closings for the first time in 5 years.

Ma stresses that retailers will want to make efforts to be visible in their community of customers to foster all-important brand loyalty. Brick-and-mortar stores can do this by sponsoring events in their cities, joining their local Chambers of Commerce, or networking with other retailers to form business alliances. These moves bolster the brick-and-mortar business community, and can help stop the retail apocalypse in its tracks. 

Omnichannel Approach

Despite the renaissance of in-store commerce, many businesses are spreading a wider net to capture a larger percentage of their target market. Having an approach that utilizes the best that eCommerce, online marketing, and in-store service has to offer is a way to meet all customers where they are. 

An omnichannel approach to retail sales acknowledges that an online presence is a must-have, but doesn’t negate the importance of in-person interactions. If using the pandemic as a business barometer, the importance of an online retail space was shown to be integral to the survival of many businesses during the pandemic shutdown. However, as we start to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, face-to-face retail is having its moment as people clamor to get back into stores. 

Keeping Up With Customer Demands

No matter the retail approach a business decides to employ, they need to remain focused on their customers and offer solutions to address their customers’ pain points regularly. 

“You want to keep your customers in your ecosystem by providing all kinds of solutions and products they may need,” Ma explains. “Figure out ways to offer new, relevant products that keep you on-trend and keep previous customers coming back for more.”

Retailers need not fear an all-out retail apocalypse, but must be aware of what their customers want and need. Staying abreast of customer behavior is always recommended for retail success. Retailers should analyze where their customers are, what kind of shopping experience they prefer, and the structure of their business when they decide whether to go “all in” on in-person, online, or an omnichannel approach to sales.