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History Brought Us Here: The Retail Apocalypse Is Nothing New | Darn Cheap Discounts

History Brought Us Here: The Retail Apocalypse Is Nothing New



Jim Brett

Former CEO J Crew and former Presidentwest elm


On October 18, 2016, I was the president of west elm, sitting on the rooftop of the Empire Stores building at 55 Water Street in DUMBO, Brooklyn—home to our headquarters—and celebrating over six years of double-digit comparative growth for our brand. We had also recently launched commercial office furniture and announced our plans to open west elm hotels. I was on top of the world, and if you could see how beautiful the view of Manhattan is from that particular location, you would really understand why.

Exactly three weeks later, we had a new U.S. president-elect, and it certainly felt like life was about to drastically change. Over the following months, I decided to stop watching the news and start reading it. (Better to be informed than inflamed, I figured.) But then, as I read so many articles predicting the impending fall of some great retailers, I found myself waiting for the Doomsday Clock to get another minute closer to midnight.

So I stopped reading the news and started thinking about what was really happening: Our world was changing—shouldn’t we try to become more conscious citizens involved in our communities in more productive ways? To that end, I started doing some work with the Human Rights Campaign, and a few months later, when controversy erupted over a transgender boy’s fight against his school district to determine which bathroom he could use, I am proud to say my parent company, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., was one of the 53 U.S. companies to sign the amicus brief supporting his lawsuit. Next up was the annual AIDS Walk New York, and I was able to become the No. 1 fundraiser for the third year in a row. 

I was feeling good about being involved and engaged, but what was I doing to create change in my own industry, which was supposedly approaching the apocalypse? So, that June 2017, I made a huge decision. I left the presidency of a thriving brand to become the new CEO of J.Crew, a brand at a pivotal moment, and one that has been at the center of the American retail landscape for decades.    

It was exciting and scary and my friends thought I was having a midlife crisis. But the truth is, I wanted to be right in the middle of the retail apocalyptic conversation. I was energized and optimistic, because I understood something fundamental: History has brought us here. Sure, like most retailers, I have my ups and downs about the state of our industry. But I don’t see the current one as an apocalypse: I see it as an inevitable part of a cycle. One that has been happening since the beginning of retail and one that may be coming full circle for the first time.

Until the turn of the 20th century, America was a nation of shopkeepers where handmade and small production goods were primarily sold directly by local stores or the makers themselves. But with technological advances came mass production and in turn, large-scale retailing, which altered the buyer-seller-producer relationship and created our country’s first department stores, accelerating the democratization of American society (including the establishment of credit).

Those urban department stores—as grand as palaces—had a great run until post-World War II when factory production went overseas, and cities emptied for a rush to the suburbs. In 1956, a pioneering architect named Victor Gruen realized that these new suburbanites lacked the sort of community they enjoyed on urban streets and invented the enclosed shopping mall—what he thought of as an indoor Main Street.

The next big change came in the early ’60s when the cash-strapped parents of the baby boomers demanded more economical goods, resulting in the stripped-down discount hypermarket that eliminated department-store style and service and focused instead on the high volume and low profit margin strategy. ( S. Kresge Company opened the first Kmart named store on March 1, 1962, Dayton Company opened its first Target store on May 1, 1962, and on July 2, 1962 Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart store.) Although the late ’60s and early ’70s interest in ethnic crafts sparked a small boutique culture, retail’s next big game changer came in 1994 when Jeff Bezos created Amazon, and e-commerce got its first and most important business model.

My point: How and where and why we shop is at the foundation of American life, and sooner or later what’s happening in the political, economic and technological spheres does dictate what happens in retail stores. And because shopping is our intersection of commerce and culture, we need to stop listening to those “experts” who love to offer complicated explanations about how to solve what is going “wrong.” I’ve spent almost 30 years in retail, and I promise you, the answer is much simpler and also much harder. Shoppers are not failing us: We are failing them. Mostly because we are getting caught up in orthodoxies and ignoring our instincts.

Hey, I am no Pollyanna and will be the first to acknowledge that the world of retail is undergoing an uncomfortable period of both conflict and innovation. But shopping isn’t obsolete: It’s the model of shopping that is changing. And although that change makes for a complex reality, it is also a natural occurrence. What we are really experiencing together is not confined to a business disturbance—we are navigating an inevitable societal shift. And this isn’t the first time that technology has changed culture and thereby our behavior: A decade ago, cord cutting was predicted to be the end of television. But it wasn’t. Rather it was the end of the old model and the beginning of a new viewer experience, empowering us to watch whatever we want, whenever and however we want to. Eight episodes of Stranger Things during a long flight? Sure. Bring it on. And by the way, despite the industry analysts’ doom and gloom, streaming services have ultimately created great shows and upped the episodic story-telling game across all platforms, including pay-cable. 

We must apply that same kind of bold, original thinking that forever changed television as a story-telling medium to how to redesign the retail customer experience—the way it looks and feels and most importantly, the way it operates. So as hybrid-purchasing behaviors continue to emerge, let’s dig beneath superficial solutions and give our customers what they want: to be understood.

Our challenge is to combine historical and futuristic business models in order to give customers the community-centric experiences of the past for which they yearn, combined with the omnipresent access they now require. And only when we have an obsessive understanding of what solutions suit our customers’ individual styles, will we be able to engage them in a way that will build enduring relationships. 

So let’s not reduce this hybrid to fast and temporary fashion. Because it really is about an evolving consciousness for forever style and human connection, which can only happen if we enact meaningful operational changes and bring them to life over time, in partnership with our customers. And let’s not be bullied into calling the work we love a “retail apocalypse.” Because there are a lot of jobs at stake, within our own companies and across our supply chains. Instead let’s dig into the opportunity to become a productive part of change—something bigger that, in turn, will make us better. And that is the most effective kind of activism and advocacy that we can bring to our industry now, when it needs us the most.

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