Friday, June 3, 2016

Are Department Stores Dinosaurs?

The uncertain future of department stores has been discussed for more than 30 years, with the rise of specialty stores, consumer preference for lifestyle shopping centers instead of enclosed malls, and--of course--online shopping.

During the 1980s and 1990s, department stores and mass merchandisers were making significant changes behind the scenes. Point-of-sale terminals replaced cash registers, and personal computers brought data analysis to management's fingertips. Managers could see hourly sales trends instead of waiting for end-of-month numbers.

In those days, department stores like Saks and Sears still offered private-label credit cards, which in turn allowed them to see who bought what and how often. Credit was frequently a source of profits, not just an engine for supporting sales increases. (Today, nearly all store cards are operated by non-retailers). Remember, Sears founded the Discover card, using its expertise in the credit industry. Here's a case study about Sears that offers clues to some of the retail challenges of the time. And here's a quick look at how Sears evolved over the years.

The question of whether department stores are dinosaurs bound for extinction is still being asked. A real estate analysis firm recently estimated that department stores would need to shutter hundreds of branches to return to the sales-per-square-foot productivity levels of 2006. That translates into a sea of empty anchor stores all over the country. Malls are trying to update the shopping experience to bring consumers back, to go to the movies or for specialty stores that are especially in demand.

In a world where promotional pricing attracts shopper attention, department stores are joining in, and that's making waves for high-end brands. Michael Kors is going to limit the number of products it sells to department stores to avoid having its lux image affected by promo pricing.

Department stores are also making some other adjustments. Macy's is closing a few dozen stores, and Sears/Kmart is closing some stores as well. Macy's has begun rolling out "Backstage" off-price stores within stores to utilize space and attract price-conscious shoppers who might otherwise go elsewhere. Sears is leasing some of its space to other stores, such as Primark.

It's still too early to deem department stores dinosaurs.

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