Retail: The Tipping Point, Again

Interesting article last month in The New York Times: “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?” I guess the question is, hasn’t it been for a few years now? In fact, ever since I got into consumer PR in 1996 with a focus on fashion brands and retailing, the powers that be have been heralding the end of retail.

Perhaps this really is the tipping point, with e-commerce being the catalyst. I would have thought that would have happened already, though.

I remember when buying online first emerged in force in the late ‘90’s, there was a ton of speculation about how it would work. For those of us with roots in the fashion/apparel industry, it was a huge question mark. Would you really be willing to buy fashion online? Aspirin, sure. But a new dress? About that time, I was hired to represent, an online destination launched by comedian Tracey Ullman. Their aim was to not only sell you cool fashion that you couldn’t find in most stores across America, but to help you choose styles that would be right for your body type. Based on the information you submitted they would put clothes in ‘your closet.’ It was a super novel idea at the time and people loved it, especially because the designs were so fresh. Her partner was an LA stylist who had access to some very cool underground designers.

Back then we thought retail was definitely over. Twenty years on it’s still here.

My guess is that retail is going to undergo a reinvention with some really smart things emerging, for example, as the article reports, in-store sales employees could earn commissions for helping customers with online purchases. What always differentiated retail was the experience. I wonder if our slide away from the mall is a function of time - no one has any anymore, its seems. And with the rise of virtual crowds, we don’t need to press the flesh, we can connect happily and with less social mess online. I am personally addicted to Moda Operandi. So much so that I don’t delete their emails for fear they will start being routed into Clutter.

Who needs a store when I can have a whole fashion party online? Here’s to reinvention!