The death of retail is greatly exaggerated

I’ve been thinking a lot about retail these days and I’ve been connecting the dots between the seeming death of retailers like Ralph Lauren and the book industry. In short, we are feeling the seismic echoes of the 2008 crash right now on Main Street and things are both ugly and pretty at the same time.

The book industry, like the music industry, nearly imploded when the world stopped spending its disposable income in the last recession. This led to much doom and gloom and it also led to the rise of ebooks which, at the time, cost far less than a paperback or hardback. Therefore power readers, for lack of a better word, ditched bookstores and only those who enjoyed the book buying experience over the convenience of online kept going to bookstores. And, in seemingly an instant, we saw the collapse of Borders and Barnes & Noble and the death of print in America.

Or did we?

What we actually saw was a collapse of the old distribution models. Further, any time an old distribution model dies there are plenty of folks who complain their specific sky is falling. As a writer I watched magazines get replaced by websites and bookstores replaced by Amazon and publishers replaced by – and this could be good or bad – self publishing. The self publishing jag continued into Medium and, I would argue, most of the writing that once ended up moldering in the back pages of business journals and trade publications is now online. In short, all of the old distribution systems that made a few people lots and lots of money in the old days shut down and the new systems that made a lot of people a little money sprang up.

At the same time we saw something amazing. First, paper book sales in general are up as Generation X and beyond begins to fight back against impermanence of culture. Book lovers know the old John Waters quote – “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them” – and they took it to heart. So you have indie bookstores “booming” in the same way long-tail blogs are booming and companies like Read Dog Books are offering cute little book boxes that makes receiving a book a treat rather than an exchange. People want paper books because of how they make them feel – special, in-the-know, educated. In short, it’s the hipsterization of book retail.

Back to the retail doldrums. While there are plenty of reasons malls are dying I would wager that the primary one is that they sell nothing that the average young person wants, especially given all of the choice on the Internet. The beloved brands of old – Banana Republic, Ralph Lauren, Gap – are stale and they were initially usurped by American Apparel and then fully shattered by upstarts like American Giant, Supreme, and the rest of that Massdrop/Acryonym/Facebook/RageOn world that brings custom fashion to you at a discount (or, in some cases, a decided non-discount). But the problem is that each of these highly sought-after and popular brands are available electronically and anyone – from a kid in Skopje to a tactical jacket lover in Fresno – has access to wacky fashion that was once available only to the New York/London/Paris/Tokyo crowd or the Griswolds in European Vacation.

So again, as in the world of books, the long tail is eating the old and decrepit body. But the long tail again does something clever. The key, then, is for the startup to fill that niche with cool stuff that people want and that is available down the street and not around the world.

What happens next? Exactly what is happening in books. The experience of clothes buying, the micro-retail experience of finding something only you know about, will become far more important. When everyone can get Yeezys online, finding a special pair of blaze orange ones made of carbon fiber and Japanese denim that are only available at a tiny shop in Denver will be the new driving force back to retail. Retail isn’t dying, it’s changing.

Let the malls implode. Young retailers will remake them in their own image, gutting the old Gap stores and putting in a coffee shop. Large buildings will be repurposed into markets and micro-retail will replace maxi-retail. And the process will repeat – small becomes big which topples and the small rise again. While the seismic effects of retail death are real and dangerous in the short term I’m optimistic enough to bet on the small scale in the long term.

And, maybe in the next ten years, someone like John Waters will tell the world that if you go home with someone who doesn’t own a one-of-a-kind, wildly unique P24 HD Gabardine Articulated re-cut staple military style trouser you shouldn’t sleep with them.