I Believe in Cycles- Even for Retail

I believe in cycles; there will be another recession (sooner rather than later is my personal belief).  There will be another major stock market correction at the end of which will be glorious buying opportunities.  We are coming to the end of another debt super cycle (see the book This Time is Different; Eight Centuries of Financial Folly).  After we get our comeuppance for all the stuff we wanted but didn’t want to pay for, the economy will be able to grow faster again.  I believe in long term social cycles (see the book The Fourth Turning) and that after our current period of social chaos we will find compelling reasons to  join together again.

I don’t believe this time is different.  Even for retail and despite the changing of shopper attitude, the internet, the customer being in charge, and the fact that we’ve been over retailed for a long, long time.

This was brought into focus when my research department offered up “With each department store that closes, a world vanishes” from The Washington Post.  The author, Micheline Maynard, started working as a gift wrapper at a department store in the 1970s.

I was stopped in my mental tracks when she wrote, “The store manager was like the mayor; everyone perked up when he strolled through, surveying his domain, bending to pick up bits of invisible fluff from the carpet. Department managers often had college degrees, and earned salaries and perks that made them the store’s upper middle class. Buyers from the designer section were the people who took the vacations you yearned for — they made glamorous trips to New York and Europe, coming back with look books and fabric swatches, letting us lower-ranking employees see the colors that would be popular next season.”

“These stores made an entire lifestyle possible for people who worked in them. Conversely, it was important for customers to see us as symbols of what they could attain, too. Customers were part of our community; our job was to sell them things that would highlight their good taste and let them share the sense of satisfaction that we felt after selling something special. That went both ways.”

“The store was a place for learning as well as teaching. I counseled customers not to put their crystal goblets in the dishwasher, to protect their thin rims.”

I doubt any retailer reading this is telling customers not to put their crystal in the dishwasher.  But she is describing precisely the relationship we as retailers want to have with our customers today.  Maybe think hard about that for a moment before moving on.

Somehow, we seem to see this as new.  Cleverly, we think, we’ve figured out that we need to provide our customers not just with a product, but with an experience.  Sounds like that’s what Micheline was doing starting in the late 1970s.  And while we’re at it, I’d note that they were focused on customer service, education and creating a relationship between the store, its staff, and the customer.

Perhaps, in a time of rapid economic growth and general economic prosperity, before the internet, improvements in logistics and supply, the speed of change and a dramatic oversupply of “stuff,” we could forget some of this.  Now, as the cycles turn, it’s back with a vengeance.

The tactics are different.  I’d say they are harder and costlier to implement as the expectation for “experiences” has increased.  I’d further say we’re not entirely sure what those tactics are yet.  The speed of change requires a different organization structure and mindset.  The retailers who evolve a process for creating experiences often without breaking the bank will have a leg up.

Still, it seems that “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  I am just full of platitudes today, aren’t I?

Here’s the link to the article.