Retail's Last Refuge

New York, as it turns out, will be a bit of a science experiment for the future of retail. For the last year, stores were off-limits. Everything was delivered, and walking into a retail establishment even with a mask on seemed like it was taking your life in your hands. So inevitably, stores closed, sales plummeted, and at retailers' corporate headquarters, there were long meetings -- albeit on Zoom -- about how to stem the bleeding and control costs.

It's worth reminding readers here that at this point there was no clear path to a vaccine, no likelihood that it would be successful, and no end date to the pandemic. And now, in India, for example, the pandemic is far from over. But in the U.S., with vaccine uptake on the rise, it does seem as if things are returning to a certain level of normal.

This brings me back to retail. Let's talk about Banana Republic. I'm a customer, but an infrequent one. A number of years ago, I walked into the Banana Republic about two blocks from my house. I bought a couple of T-shirts, overpriced but comfortable. I went back a couple of times, and each time they pushed me hard to take their credit card and give them an email address. Finally, I relented.



So now I get email offers -- lots of them. 40% off. 50% off. But here’s what’s weird. I could walk by the store, look in the window, go inside, shop for a second, and leave. Then a Banana Republic email barrage would continue to remind me about sales and discounts -- lots of them.

About 18 months ago, the Banana Republic near my house closed. No more signage to walk by. No more clothes or shoes to check out. Today I learned that the Banana Republic 10 blocks from my house is also closing down.

I get that they've got to balance the books. Real estate is expensive. And sales at retail locations have been dismal.

But to me, the retail locations were what made the digital Banana Republic presence "real."

The problem is the math. On paper, the stores are losers; the future is digital, so they close stores to cut losses. Simple. But at least in my case, the stores went from being the place I bought things to the place that reminded me of the brand, and sometimes gave me a chance to check out fabrics or size.

To be fair, I'm biased. I want the street-level retail in my neighborhood to remain vibrant and diverse. And I want retailers to understand that street-level retail may not be where I swipe a credit card, but it may be the experience that leads me to patronize them online. '

Of course, this consumer experience is very hard to measure. When you check out of an online store, no one asks, “Have you visited our retail locations lately?”

Retail is changing, and COVID certainly accelerated that trend. But I wonder, given the likelihood that the leases retailers are abandoning may have years left on them, if trying to re-invent street-level storefronts wouldn't be wiser?

Let’s say there was no stock in the stores, but simply one of every size for try-ons, and then a ship direct-to-your-home purchase option. Might the power of having the brand in the community pay measurable results in a crowded digital world? If I'm going to buy a pair of chinos, and I can’t feel the fabric or try on the fit, doesn't Banana Republic hand that sale over to the lower-priced Amazon house brands? With free returns, Amazon is already a step ahead.

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