INNOVATION IS KEY IN THESE QUICKLY CHANGING RETAILING TIMES

“The changing face of U.S. retail …”

You’ve probably seen, in print or online, news headlines like the one above. They go back a couple of years — perhaps further back than that in some regions of the country. This isn’t misleading, It’s real. U.S. retail is changing. Anyone who can be counted among American consumers has seen it, has experienced it, and — knowingly or unknowingly — very likely has contributed to it.

In and around Lake Wales, the evidence of a retailing metamorphosis has included the impact of the shrinking national Sears department store and Toys R Us footprints. The evidence also has included the very recent news that 467,000 square feet of the 660,000-square-foot Eagle Ridge Mall (everything but the Dillard’s anchor store) had been offered for sale in an online auction.

Changing retail either forces or is forced by changing consumer habits, and oftentimes it’s quite positive. Changing retail is a fact of life today, but, really, in hindsight, it’s always been a fact of life. Retailing today isn’t what it was like in the 1980s, and retailing in the ’80s wasn’t what it was like in the 1950s and ’60s. Who remembers the old department stores with their in-store diners or “luncheonettes,” or downtown business districts dominated by retail establishments like furniture, clothing, grocery, drug and hardware stores?

What’s behind today’s top-of-the-news retailing changes? Here at the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council, we see three key economic drivers at play:

  1. The surge in e-commerce, or online selling and buying.
  2. Retail overbuilding in a time of expanded choices.
  3. A mismatch of traditional retail and new consumer needs and wants.

We’ve all discovered it and most of us like it: Online shopping and buying offers a huge convenience factor. We’re not limited by store hours or even by our working hours or location. From the Internet and using desktop, laptop, smartphone, and tablet computers, we can shop and buy at any time, and we can find great deals and great savings from thousands of retailers and individual sellers located all over the world. And, under most circumstances, we can get shipping to our door at no cost. At one time, we wouldn’t think about buying groceries online, but now that’s changing, too. What could be the next big thing in online retailing? The companies that evolve and change will shape it, and it will be interesting to see how that develops.

On the brick-and-mortar side of retailing, some national companies — particularly restaurant chains — have simply opened too many locations at the wrong time and now are having to retreat in the face of greatly expanded consumer options. Other companies might be in the right places with their stores, but some of the stores — and their overhead — might just be too big. So, the companies are scaling back and going with a smaller store footprint. In essence, a store-site market correction is taking place, and many companies are being touched by it.

For financial, economical, occupational, family, health, entertainment, and many other reasons, consumer demands for needs and wants have changed — perhaps more so and more quickly than at any previous time in our nation’s history. Companies that don’t catch on to trending consumer habits and don’t adjust to them quickly enough are just as quickly left behind. Consumer loyalty to certain businesses isn’t what it used to be. Successful companies, like Amazon at the online level and Publix and Aldi at the supermarket level, are those with excellent marketing departments, each with an excellent read on consumer trends. Amazon simply delivers — millions of products and many proprietary services — and delivers very well, and its customers usually benefit with bottom-line pricing. When you think about Publix, the first thing that comes to mind is excellent customer service. At Aldi, the great appeal to customers is discount pricing on quality products and an increasing foray into organic products. Each of these companies, by example, offers different but very appealing experiences.

What’s the positive answer to consumers’ quickly changing shopping, buying, and dining demands? It appears to be, in a word, innovation. Companies that have their collective finger on the public pulse, that innovate boldly and quickly enough, that develop niche products and services, and that effectively move with the market are the ones that stay ahead of the consumer curve and fare best when the retailing times are a-changing.

Many times, with economic development, the emphasis — at least in perception — often is placed on the private side, but there’s a very important public side, too. Economic development as structured and practiced in Polk County, at both the county and local levels, is very much a 50-50 partnership — an equal partnership. In Lake Wales, this is everybody’s EDC. Everybody is welcome to contribute. Individuals and organizations from all community and business sectors are welcome, too, to join as investing partners.

Let’s talk about local retail. Let’s talk about how best to use and repurpose once-used but now-available retail space. Let’s talk about the innovative ways local retailers and would-be retailers can ride the sea-wave of retailing change and open wide the windows of opportunity it presents.

The sign is out at the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council. It reads: “Your ideas are welcome here.”