Retail is Dead! Or is it?

You’ve read the news. This calendar year bankruptcies or total closures were announced by Toys R Us, Gymboree, Bebe, American Apparel, Guess, Rue 21, The Limited, Gander Mountain, Vitamin World, and Family Christian Stores.

Sears and Kmart announced last Friday that they were closing another 63 stores in January, on top of the 358 they closed already this year. And the watchful vultures are proverbially placing bets on when the entity will finally die.

This is on top of dozens of other retail operations closing their operations in the past few years, shuttering thousands of locations.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s corporate sales grew by 28 billion dollars from 2015 to 2016 (see their financial statement here).

Is Retail Dead?

Shall we stick a fork in it? Is it done? Is the world of retail kaput?

Dare I be contrary and say “No, it is not dead”?

Like most people I can be guilty of grazing the headlines and the first few sentences of a news article. And then I claim to have an “informed opinion.” We can easily forget the news adage “If it bleeds it leads.” Bad news is shouted from the rooftops. Good news is left unreported.

I suggest we need to look beyond the gruesome headlines.

For example, last week the entire bookselling industry ran the story in their newsfeeds that Eerdmans Publishing was closing their in-house store. (The original article is here.) The article made this statement:

“The closing, which affects two persons, follows a retailing trend established earlier this year, when the nation’s largest chain of Christian retail stores, Family Christian Stores of Grand Rapids, closed all 240 of its stores in 36 states.”

Wait. What? Notice how many employees were affected. Two. And yet there is a jump to claim it follows the “retail trend” and compares it to the bankruptcy of the largest Christian bookstore chain.

If there are only two people running the store it could not have been a very large operation. It should not be compared to a chain of 240 stores with 3,000 employees (an average of over 12 people per store).

Yet the headline proclaimed or at least suggested more “bad news” for bookstore retail.

The State of Retail

In the November 2017 issue of “Internet Retailer” magazine, editor Zak Stambor wrote:

“Fundamentally, retail is healthy. Overall retail sales rose 4.4% in the second quarter and e-commerce sales jumped 12.1%. And stores aren’t going anywhere. In fact, there will be 1,326 net new U.S. stores opening this year across a range of categories-from supermarkets to specialty merchants to mass merchandisers-according to retail research and advisory firm IHL Group.”

You can get your own copy of the free study by the IHL Group titled “Debunking the Retail Apocalypse” by signing up at this link. (I highly recommend reading this well crafted 34 page PDF document.)

The difference however is that it is no longer “business as usual.” There are some very smart people trying different ways to appeal to the changing way people shop. There are strong efforts being made to integrate the online experience with the physical store experience. Less fear of a customer whipping out their cell phone in the store to check things out, but instead encouraging it

Isn’t it fascinating that Amazon.com is opening physical bookstores across the country and invested $13.7 billion to buy a grocery store chain…with 460 physical locations? Immediately upon taking ownership the set up in those grocery stores changed.

What About Books?

There are many questions and worries about the health, or lack of it, in book retailing. We scan the constant (breathless) headlines of the flat sales or declining sales at Barnes & Noble. We watched as Hastings closed and Family Christian Stores closed. We hear, “Everyone buys their books on Amazon. Bookstores are dead. Retail may have a heartbeat but bookstores need a post-mortem.”

Then why is the Canadian bookstore chain, Indigo, expanding into the U.S. in 2018? They will be opening their first U.S. stores next summer in New Jersey.

What about the October 27th article in Publishers Weekly? They wrote about dozens of new Christian bookstores opening in places where Family Christian Stores closed! This suggests that those communities can still support a quality Christian bookstore. The problem for Family Christian Stores was their financial debt. I wrote about this multiple times in the past. Their financial debt stressed their ability to stay viable.

What About You, the Author?

Should we say the following?

Amazon is the villain. Your favorite store or Mall are the victims. No one reads anymore. Books aren’t selling. The industry is dead. Therefore you should quit.

Emphatically, “No!”

Are things different? Yes. The shifting nature of online retail and shopping patterns and the opportunity for Indie authors have changed the landscape. The way we experienced it even 15 years ago has changed. We can resist it or we can watch and learn and adapt to it.

However, the bottom line is that content is still king. People still want, even need, content. They want to be inspired, entertained, or informed. Your job is to find a way to do that with your writing.

Think beyond the book. Consider periodical writing (both online and physical magazines). Think specialty writing (greeting cards, curriculum, drama). There are many ways to write for publication, not just the book. (Please take a look at The Christian Writers Market Guide for hundreds of places where your work can find a home.)

16 Responses to Retail is Dead! Or is it?

  1. Brennan S. McPherson November 6, 2017 at 4:53 am #

    What a fantastic article. Glad you still reconnect with your long history in retail, Steve! I am a bit disturbed by the changes Amazon is making to Whole Foods (other than the price reductions, which is nice). For me, what made Whole Foods so attractive was that each store could be uniquely fit to the region. But we’ll see if the changes end up being as creepy as I worry they might be.

    Anyways, retail in our tiny town in WI is absolutely booming. It’s re-vitalizing our downtown, which was dead for over a decade. At least 6 new stores (about a 20% increase in total stores) have cropped up in the past couple years and are doing extremely well–so well that two of them just doubled their store space–and the massive increase in foot-traffic has led to the town starting up a farmers’ market that happens two days of the week in the heart of downtown. 3 more stores are preparing to jump in right now, and the farmers’ market has nearly doubled in size in just 6 months. There are few black holes for retail bigger than a tiny town like the one we live in–and yet it’s growing fast here.

  2. Judith Robl November 6, 2017 at 5:21 am #

    Well said! Thank you for doing the heavy lifting for your readers and plowing through all the research.

  3. Rebekah Love Dorris November 6, 2017 at 5:36 am #

    Yes, thanks for this injection of optimism in my gray Monday morning!

  4. Damon J. Gray November 6, 2017 at 5:47 am #

    I want to purchase a specific book for my eldest son for Christmas – a classic. Naturally, I looked on Amazon to see what my options were there, but in the end, opted to not make that purchase. Why? I want to hold the book in my hands. I want to see the binding, feel the pages, touch the artwork on the cover.

    In all likelihood, I’ll triple the price of the book by buying it from a local retailer, but I’ll feel much better about my purchase.

  5. Loretta Eidson November 6, 2017 at 8:02 am #

    Great article! Thank you for sharing!

  6. Crystal Caudill November 6, 2017 at 8:37 am #

    I still prefer bookstores to online if I have the time. I love the relaxing atmosphere, the ability to peruse a book more thoroughly, and the chance to discover new authors that I would have any other way. The Christian fiction sections can be quite small, but they are still there.

  7. Carol Ashby November 6, 2017 at 8:55 am #

    I love bookstores. I love to browse the shelves to see what unexpected treasures I can find, and I do try to buy my hardcopy novels at our local Christian bookstore. That said, Amazon is not the enemy of authors. On the same Kindle bestseller lists that my novels oscillate on and off, I find the works of the traditionally published authors writing Biblical or ancient world fiction: Tessa Afshar, Connilyn Cossette. Angela Hunt, Diana Wallis Taylor, Mesu Andrews, Jill Eileen Smith, Francine Rivers, and others. I also find their older novels at Amazon, not just the latest release. Every Kindle sale generates money for an author, traditionally published or indie.

    I write novels about the power of Christian love and forgiveness to transform lost souls into men and women who believe in Jesus as savior. Those would never make it past the gate of a traditional publisher because selling 4K the first year is unlikely. But Amazon lets me reach 100 to 300 people each month with that message, and 10% of those people are somewhere in the world other than the US. About 2% post reviews, and those tell me the message of God’s people sharing His love and forgiveness to transform lives is getting through and touching the reviewers. That’s the reason I’m writing, and I thank God for Amazon making that possible.

    There’s room for both brick-and-mortar and online sellers in the book world. Let’s support the stores when we can, but it’s good to remember Amazon is an ally in getting our message out, not an enemy.

  8. Kristen Joy Wilks November 6, 2017 at 9:09 am #

    I order my books over the phone from our little local bookstore. We don’t have a Christian one in town, but A Book For All Seasons will order any Christian book I want, including Bible studies. Then when my books come in, they give me a personal call. I go and pick up my books, browse their bookstore, and perhaps sit in the local coffee shop in the adjacent shop. It is a good set up and they appear to be doing just fine.

  9. Bob Hostetler November 6, 2017 at 9:45 am #

    Yes, fantastic article. It is as you say–“no longer ‘business as usual.'” In our little corner of the world (and speaking only for myself and my family), online purchases are preferred for some things, when speed and convenience are the goals, but stores can’t be beat when it comes to getting personal assistance (those that offer, like the Apple Store experience, which can’t be beat), trying things on, and (as Damon and Carol say above) touching/tasting/sniffing/comparing things such as books.

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D November 6, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    Thanks for doing the research for us, Steve. I love the feel of a book in my hands, and this is obvious in my house, which has countless books. There is a market for books and other items. I love to shop but will admit that, as various stores have stopped carrying the clothing I like best, I have turned to finding the items on Amazon. Interestingly enough, that keeps me out of stores.

  11. Janet Ann Collins November 6, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    When I was writing for a local paper I pitched an idea about somebody doing something nice for another person and was told, “That’s not news. People do things like that all the time.”

    Thank you for sharing some good news.

  12. Eric Grimm November 6, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    Thanks, Steve, for a very insightful article. It always amazes me how people can go to extremes on their opinions just reading strategic headlines from vested interests. Even the top retail-industry analysts will tell you 85% of retail will be in physical stores at least for the next 25 years (McKinsey). Successful stores will be omnichannel, meaning, like Amazon, they will sell both online and in store.

  13. Rev. Robert A. Crutchfield November 6, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Your “move beyond the book” suggestion is the same strategy involved in my moving our ministry from doing just blog articles to videos. Youtube even pays us 55 % of the ad revenue from our videos. Of course much of the marketing burden falls on me/us. So this strategy may require a writer to become more savvy in the business and marketing side of things. I would argue that there has always been more marketing involved in professional writing as it is. In our case we are looking at moving from videos to online courses, in many cases made from those same videos, which will produce even more income !

  14. Susy Flory November 6, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

    Amazon sales were up 28 billion dollars? Wow. That’s an incredible number. But one thing I know–in America we cheer for the scrappy underdog. With Amazon now at the top of the heap, I hope book retailers continue to innovate their offerings and approaches, and refine their customer service. Because I don’t think anyone will cry when Amazon meets some honest competition.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On the Rumoured Death of Retail | Christian Book Shop Talk - November 6, 2017

    […] Steve Laube is a Christian literary agent whose blog is tremendous source of information for prospective writers. It is always linked in the sidebar of this page. This morning he posted the article, “Retail is Dead! Or is it?” This is only a few highlights, for the full piece click this link. […]

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    […] Ellen Duffer reports that bookstores see record-low August sales. Which prompts Steve Laube to exclaim: Retail is dead! Or is it? […]

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