The retail apocalypse

The death of physical stores and how they are being replaced

Courtesy+of+the+Forever+21+Facebook+Page

Courtesy of the Forever 21 Facebook Page

By Madison Cushing, Collegian Staff

A few weeks ago, I opened Facebook to find rumors circulating that Taunton’s Silver City Galleria was closing. Although the owner asserts that this is not true, at least two thirds of the mall’s lease spaces are empty.

My family and I grew up going to this mall. As a little kid, I was awed by the fountains and theaters and seemingly endless stores. Today, it is a rundown ghost town. Similarly, almost every store one would actually want to go to in my local mall on Cape Cod has shut down, with “For Lease” signs more abundant than anything else. Most painfully, Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy and closed their store.

Starting around 2010, we saw the beginning of what has now been dubbed the “retail apocalypse” where hundreds and hundreds of America’s brick-and-mortar stores are shutting down and moving out. Recently, things have begun to move at an alarming rate. In 2019, more than 9,300 stores closed which was a 60 percent jump from the 5,844 which closed in 2018. Investment bank UBS predicts another 75,000 could be lost by 2026. Payless ShoeSource has plans to close all 2,100 US stores and Gymboree is closing 800. Sears has already shuttered 1,300 Sears and Kmart locations since 2013 and in 2019, they shut down 80 more. Recently, Toys R Us closed all 800 stores, a national tragedy. Mall owners are desperate, suing companies for closing, or even bailing them out in hopes of a little more cash flow. Dead malls are even a bit of a cultural phenomenon.

Why exactly are so many physical stores getting the boot? The internet has changed the way we do everything- learn, socialize and shop. Shopping has gone digital, as has everything else, and seems it could soon enough be solely digital.

Amazon has become a powerhouse in the last few years with Amazon Prime specifically negating the need to ever leave your house to buy anything. PrimeNow brought one hour delivery to dozens of cities around the world. Amidst keeping up with and progressing smart home technology, AI and cloud technology, Amazon has still recognized and met the needs of the general population with grocery services, increasingly fast shipping and almost any product one could ever want. Amazon also provides AmazonFresh, an Amazon included service offering fresh fruits, vegetables and ready-to-cook meals that is offered in populated cities. PrimePantry which launched in 2014, allows Prime members to go grocery shopping from their home for a $5.99 delivery. As of 2016, Amazon has a warehouse or delivery station within 20 miles of 44 percent of the US population. Between 2014 and 2018, annual sales for Amazon’s retail division doubled from $50.8 billion to $106.1 billion.

Many of the stores that are dying are full of clothing – JCPenney, Forever 21, Gap and many more. To fill the hole, cheap online retailers and fast fashion have moved in to replace these stores. Companies like SheIn, ROMWE and Zaful offer low-quality knockoffs of fashionable clothing for under $25. Fast fashion is the phenomenon of inexpensive remakes of the most recent catwalk or celebrity looks and trends with FashionNova being easily the most well-known and endorsed by Instagram models and partially relevant influencers.

Some have argued that physical retail is not dying, but evolving. In 2019, Adobe found that “Buy Online, Pickup In Store” purchases were up 43.2 percent from the previous year. In 2017, Amazon bought Whole Foods for $13.4 billion- one could assume they are not going anywhere. Amazon has even placed its own physical stores, manned only by apps and cameras, throughout the US: Amazon Go. The cheap options thrive, both online and in person; Dollar General opened 975 stores in 2019, Dollar Tree 348, Family Dollar 202 and Five Below opened 136 stores. However, stores, no matter the quality or prices, still see booms during the holiday season, especially with days like Black Friday and Small Business Saturday.

Although retail analysts estimate that there is still a surplus of around 30 percent of retail space, they do not predict that stores are leaving us completely. I think we can all recognize the value of seeing and feeling an item before we own it. Shopping has been a form of camaraderie for a long time, from open markets to malls. But today, we are left to see if eventually that will all fall behind a screen.

Madison Cushing can be reached at [email protected]