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The death of the dinosaurs: Why are so many legacy retailers dying off?

  • Opinion
  • September 2, 2016
  • Howard Saunders
The death of the dinosaurs: Why are so many legacy retailers dying off?

We awake to a dose of rotten retail results every morning, and it seems as if the high street (main street) has become one long, painful car crash that we’re watching in slow motion between fingers clasped against our foreheads. Bad results are usually followed by an interview with a cheery CEO who puts the ‘blip’ down to hot weather, cold weather, humidity, the Olympics, Brexit or Donald Trump. (Personally, I think it has to be Trump.)

The CEO assures us that these figures were for the last quarter and already out of date, as this was way before they appointed the bright new CMO and launched the funky new range, which incidentally, is going down a storm with millennials.



Bullsh**, and we all know it. News that Macy’s plans to close a hundred stores is just the start of it. The list of high street woes just gets longer by the day: Gap Inc, Debenhams, Walmart, Asda, Sears, Nordstrom, Marks & Spencer, JC Penney, Tesco, Morrison’s, Kroger, Target, Kohl’s…isn’t it bleedin’ obvious? We are witnessing the death of the dinosaurs. And while we’re on the subject of dinosaurs, I’d like to put in a good word for Philip Green. He didn’t kill BHS because it was moribund anyway. 


Beneath the valiant attempts to brush off the hurricane as a gentle breeze, there’s the chatter as to the cause of retail’s problems being Amazon and those disinterested millennials, who’d rather spend money on experiences, whatever that means. But CEOs aren’t stupid. Just look behind the media smile. They know the ride is coming to an end. They’re simply doing what’s expected of them: positive spin and a brave face. They know they can’t blame Amazon. For all its monster power it actually has the same root problem as BHS: it stands for absolutely nothing. Amazon is fully aware this is its Achilles heel, but is too busy counting money to do much about it. Perhaps Amazon is partly to blame in the sense that it made retailers focus on price and ‘frictionless’ shopping, rather than making their stores nicer places to be.

It’s been eight years since the meteor hit planet earth, or since the financial crash, as it’s more commonly called, and we are only now starting to realise the long term consequences. The truth is, it changed everything: we are all millennials now; we all reach for the phone before our eyelids have properly parted in the morning, least we missed a life-changing Facebook post whilst unconscious. We’ve all become tired of the same old: the same old politics, the same old superhero movies, the same old brands on the high street. Is anyone really that surprised? Is there anyone out there who seriously enjoys the Walmart, Tesco or Sears experience anymore? We’re just bored with you all.

Meanwhile, the retail press on both sides of the Atlantic remains religiously obsessed with supermarkets and out of town sheds as if nothing has changed. They act like tin shed groupies, hanging around in the car park, at some godforsaken place, for a tidbit of news. Usually something earth shattering like ‘Doberman’s profits down 15 percent’ - as if anyone other than Mr Doberman gives a sh**. Imagine the NME still filling its pages with Genesis and Yes stories week after week. Precisely.

The dinosaurs may be dying, but the planet is still teeming with life. We are at the beginning of a renaissance of street markets, ‘hipster’ food halls and the burgeoning rise of street food generally. There’s a slew of eager beaver entrepreneurs selling artisan everything that could do with a bit of positive press right now. Then there’s the satisfying surge of small, niche food producers; café culture has taken off like a rocket ship recently while bars and small batch breweries are absolutely revelling in their heyday. The lunch time food market is more lively and imaginative than it has ever been, and rich, clever brands such as Samsung, Nike, Adidas, Dyson, Lululemon and even Moleskine are inciting FOMO (fear of missing out…for all you who don’t reach for their phone first thing) with flagship stores that do so much more than just sell stuff.


There are also, I’m pleased to say, two great British dinosaurs that we can all learn from: Selfridges. It may be part of a dying breed but it will continue to thrive because when we spot its fluttering flags at the top of Oxford St, like a cruise ship waiting for us to board, it lifts our spirits. Its commitment to an innovative and engaging calendar of events makes it our ‘day out’ in the centre of London.

And just down the road there’s John Lewis. Now, John may be no party animal but he has spent the last 150 years building unrivaled trust with his customers. He brews a quiet, softly spoken form of FOMO, that is nonetheless just as powerful.

So, whilst most of the dinosaurs are beyond help, there are ways to turn things around if they really want to and, I’m sorry to say, toying with a bit of omnichannel ain’t gonna cut it. Department stores and supermarkets need to give us reasons not just to go there, but to be there. Restaurants, bars, events, markets, launches, link-ups, competitions, festivals and exhibitions can ignite FOMO, drag us out and stop us staring at our phones for 15 minutes. Let’s start with that.


 

  • Howard has worked in retail design for over twenty five years as a former creative director of Fitch and as an independent consultant, working closely with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Westfield for over a decade. This story originally appeared on Howard Saunders' blog, 22and5.

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