How traditional stores can survive in e-commerce era

Friday, February 15, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 7
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Buy-buy. If you’re in retail, those words cause mixed feelings. They’re what you wish people are doing, but they sound like what people are saying. Here’s the evidence: Toys R Us, Sears, Macy’s, wow. What’s going on? Better question, as author Mark Pilkington asks in “Retail Therapy,” how can we stop it?

Nearly everywhere you look, here and abroad, retail stores are “in crisis.” It’s happened before but “this is different,” says Pilkington, and the struggle “has… potential to affect” not just consumers, but also restaurants, banks and communities.

Roughly 25 percent of workers in the U.S. are employed by a physical retail establishment. There, employees – near three-quarters of whom are women – enjoy generally reliable work and flexible hours at a job that doesn’t always require a college degree.

The downfall is that stores are closing at alarming rates. More than 8,000 closed in 2017, including many that teetered on the brink of trouble since 2008. A closed store means less foot traffic in the area, less taxable income for infrastructure and loss of business for local restaurants. It impacts local real estate, and raises unemployment rates. These are facts but governments, Pilkington says, “seem oblivious.”

To survive, he says, owners of retail stores should throw in the towel and embrace the way e-commerce works. There are takeaways from online entities that could help a physical store thrive.

Because distribution has improved and there’s no longer reason to keep large inventories, become a “lean store.” Then, empower your employees to utilize common technology to drive customers to your website through on-the-spot ordering for home delivery.

Rethink your pricing and strive to eliminate multiple markups. Make yourself a reason for people to talk. Be sure your company “involves some kind of contribution towards making life better.”

Retail Therapy: Why the Retail Industry is Broken — And What Can Be Done to Fix It

by Mark Pilkington

c.2019, Bloomsbury Business

$28

329 pages

And, finally, get involved politically. Some of today’s world issues are not good for your store’s future.

In several places inside this book, the author uses the word “shocking,” and he’s right. The information he’s collected has been right in front of most of us for years, but is shocking to see it collated.

And yet, it feels as though there’s something missing inside “Retail Therapy.”

In comparing what’s happening in the U.K. and in the U.S. and by leaning on business history, Pilkington makes it plain to see why e-commerce is killing bricks-and-mortar. If readers need more evidence, he offers a plethora of examples and sheer economics but notes it might be premature to schedule a funeral. Pilkington’s own statistics show that a significant number of shoppers still prefer physical stores – and that includes up to one-third of millennials.

Such stats are not explored quite enough, and that leaves a hole.

Even so, there’s an enormous amount of information and advice inside this book, making it a mandatory read for retailers and for mayors of every city of size. Whether you like to “shop til you drop” or you want everyone else to do so, “Retail Therapy” is a book to buy-buy.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.