Surviving the Death of Retail


Being in business means that you have to worry about the business around you and The Atlantic’s recent article about retail’s struggle to stay afloat could have big implications for freelancers. The basic gist of the story is that a combination of factors are knocking the knees out from under big box retailers such as J.C. Penny’s, Walmart, Kmart, Best Buy, in addition to the already deceased Circuit City and Borders bookstore. What Derek Thompson, in his article titled with a nod to the play, “Death of a Salesman”, says about current trends is right on the mark: online sales are pushing out brick-and-mortar stores while low-cost wars are taking a bite out of middle class wages.

Big retail plays a huge role in providing work for creatives and if the big boys are struggling, we have to pay attention. Yet, from my lowly view I can see a rich world of local-vore style activism. Farmer’s markets, swap meets, and craft fairs are all apart of a renaissance of crafty-boutiquey, home-spun businesses catering to people who are enjoying fine handmade wares. And it looks like a growing business.

While the temperature is cooling for the old style retailer, I think what we are witnessing is a turning point and I for one am behind it all the way. Buy local campaigns and crafty hipsters are generating a lot of influence for smaller markets where people can add a personal touch to customer service. A skill that larger retailers consistently struggle with. That’s one thing Thompson doesn’t have chance to address in his article, but what should be a key element of strategy for weathering the tough times.

As big retailers decline it will surely have an impact on the economy as a whole. The middle class, under siege since the start of the recession, will face more stress as jobs and wages shrink. For the services who rely on retailers for work the pressure is going to increase, but there will be an outlet for people who can adjust to fit the times. Focusing on craft businesses and boutiques may become the future of the industry simply because it can attune itself directly to the needs of its client which brings me to my final point: people’s styles are fracturing.

Perhaps not so much fracturing as finding room for special interests, but the point is that consumers are becoming more nuanced in their choices. Their subcultural likes and dislikes are gaining more importance as the economy turns a la carte, thanks partly to the Internet. People have so many choices and to make it easier to find their way through the plethora of goods they break down into narrowly focused social identities. In order to survive in this climate it’s better to be small and mobile, homing in on a small batch of customers that you can relate to.

So while the name brands are shrinking and the impacts will be felt throughout the economy, smart people can stay on top of their game by shifting with the trends. The future, for now, is in small business. That’s in some ways the essential American dream. Opportunity and entrepreneurial spirit.

You can see the original article here, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on what these changes mean for you.