Interesting post from Fargus Larbis today about the future of retail merchants. It’s not looking good for brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers are competing with and often beating them on price, delivery, and service. I’m anxious for the retail professionals who staff and manage these stores; some can perhaps find employment with online retailers, but the trend with both virtualization and automation is for fewer employees. And if people don’t work, they won’t have money to feed into an economy that’s increasingly being driven by consumerism. And if the consumer market dries up… I don’t want to think about what comes next.
The fate of conventional retail stores reminds me of my father, who worked in retail most of his professional life. He was a department store manager for several years, until one day I came home from grammar school to see him sitting in front of a typewriter at the dining room table. This was highly unusual, so I asked why he was home.
“I quit my job today.” There was neither pleasure nor apprehension in his reply. “I’m writing my resume.” Later that evening, I asked my mother about the meaning of resume, as the word was entirely new to me. Immediately afterwards, my father would respond to questions about why he quit with clipped monosyllables, laced with a tone that invited no follow-up queries. A few years later, as his former employer’s immanent bankruptcy made the news, he finally gave me the full explanation. “The company’s profit margin had been falling for years, and they went and built a high-rise corporate tower in New York.” That building was featured in each story about the bankruptcy. “Upper management was in complete denial, but it was obvious to me that I had to get out when I did.”
Our family struggled for a couple years after my father left that job. He eventually opened a franchise for a national electronics retailer in the rural town where he was born; for years in the mid to late 1970s, his store was the only place in a fifty-mile radius where consumers could purchase electronic and computing devices. He was the first retailer in the area to sell an electronic calculator, a primitive device by today’s standards — it could only perform simple arithmetic, had no memory, and was as large as some of today’s notebook computers — but was such a novelty in our area that people would drive in from miles away just to say this amazing device. It was so popular that he kept it in a safe overnight, to prevent burglary.
My father made a good career for himself in retail, and provided valuable commodities to our small town. There will be fewer stories like my father’s in the years to come (he left the industry entirely in the early 1990s, when he saw the potential for online retailers), and while I hope the tales that replace his will end just as well, I fear we’re in for a good deal of social disruption in the coming years.