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From the Editor: Betting on Retail

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“What the heck is going on in retail?”

“What the heck is going on in retail?”

I heard the question time and again a few months ago at the GlobalShop exposition in Las Vegas – often enough that if I had a buck for every time someone said it, I might have spent a few hours at the blackjack tables. In truth, I shouldn’t have been surprised; headlines about brick-and-mortar retail’s current misfortunes are plentiful. Stores are being shuttered at an alarming rate, while online retail continues to grow – 8.3 percent last year based on US Department of Commerce stats. It’s an ominous trend for suppliers to traditional retail environments and for just about every merchant not named Amazon.

Or is it? Are we witnessing the death of the store, or simply its evolution? ST Media Group has some perspective on the subject through our long history with VMSD (Visual Merchandising and Store Design), a sister title to Screen Printing. VMSD has been monitoring retail design since 1897; in those days, the hand-lettered window facing the street was pretty much the sole design consideration. By the time we bought VMSD in 1922, stores were mindful of how merchandise was presented inside their businesses, and became much more so during the golden age of advertising.

Then Americans moved to the suburbs, and retail responded with the shopping mall. Later, “big-box” chains emerged. Service and aesthetics became secondary to product distribution; the goal was to move units of merchandise through the front door as fast as possible. The bigger these chains grew, the more impersonal they became, which left retail ripe for disruption in the form of figures like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos.

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But the story doesn’t end there. Just as retail followed baby boomers to the suburbs 50 years ago, it is now following millennials as they move back to the cities. These young consumers embrace online retail, but they also recognize needs that can’t be addressed outside store environments. Amazon realized this as well and has spent the past decade trying to find the right brick-and-mortar formula.

Amazon, like other retailers, is rediscovering the value of ideas discarded during the big-box era. The personalized customer service we once took for granted has been reborn with “brand ambassadors,” – knowledgeable associates who are a far cry from cashiers standing at endless checkout lines. The notion that consumers might want to enjoy their shopping experience is now known as “experiential retail,” and in the quest to deliver it, retailers are looking to suppliers (including printers) for innovation. It’s all about authenticity, and I’m not convinced that older consumers value it any less than millennials. We just weren’t getting it for a long time. And millennials are bringing new demands to the table with increased appreciation for social responsibility and sustainable production – expectations retailers are passing along to their print vendors.

So what’s happening in retail? It’s called adaptation, and it’s been happening for as long as humans have been selling things to one another. I’m placing my bet that brick and mortar will remain part of that process for a long time to come.

Read more from Screen Printing‘s April/May 2017 issue.

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