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Retail 'Slowmentum' Picking Up?

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At a time when sluggish-to-modest industry numbers have seemingly become the norm, and a protracted economic recovery inches forward, the recent spate of seemingly good retail and economic news has industry analysts and observers like myself raising a collective eyebrow. As Chain Store Age recently reported, “Consumer year-over-year spending growth of 4.1% gained momentum in April 2014 compared to the prior month’s growth of 3.1%.”

Along with the positive April job numbers and the news that Radio Shack now plans to shutter substantially fewer than the previously announced 1,100 locations, this would seem on the surface to indicate that things might be picking up across the board. On top of that, there seems to be some real optimism and excitement leading up to the 2014 ISCS RECon Convention in Las Vegas. I can personally attest that my RECon docket is full to bursting, and from what I’ve heard, I won’t be the only attendee with a lot on my plate.

What does all of this positive news add up to?

I think the short answer to that, unfortunately, is “not much.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m always pleased to see better numbers, good news, and optimism, but, once we unpack the data a little further, it’s easy to see that the numbers don’t really support a perspective that is much different from what we already know — or at least think we know — about the state of the industry: Growth is continuing, but doing so slowly and unevenly. Consider the fact that much of the improvement in consumer spending can probably be attributed to pent-up demand from this year’s once-in-a-lifetime winter, as well as to the fact that Easter, and all of its attendant economic activity, was bumped from March in 2013 to April this year.

As for Radio Shack scaling back its planned reorganization, it’s worth pointing out that the decision seems to be less about optimism and more about pragmatism. The planned reduction in closings is all about what the consumer electronic brand’s lenders will sign off on. Radio Shack’s credit agreement only allows the chain to close 200 stores a year, and the brand and its creditors have been unable to come to an agreement on a higher number. In the meantime, the realities of a $139 million dollar loss in 2012 and a $400 million dollar loss in 2013 are still tough to overlook.

As for the optimism within the industry, I think we can attribute a lot of that to the simple fact that retail real estate professionals are a pretty optimistic group overall. While I don’t necessarily think that the big story at RECon will be one of dramatic economic improvement, that tendency to look on the bright side will certainly contribute to a lot of lively discussion about important trends and the direction of the industry.

Key issues this year will revolve around the emergence and importance of experiential retail, questions about which new chain store concepts have legs, and whether or not there will be enough store expansion to fill some of the big box vacancies. Will Target suffer any more long-term damage to the brand as a result of their data breach issues? What is in store (literally and figuratively) for Sears and J.C. Penney, and, for better or for worse, what are the long-term implications of their ultimate fate for the rest of the industry? Sears, whose chairman and CEO Eddie Lampert who recently told shareholders that "sometimes you need to go backwards to go forwards”, has closed 305 stores in the last 3+ years, and has experienced 28 straight quarters of declining sales.

In addition to these questions, the industry’s best and brightest will no doubt discuss the growing need for retailers to optimize merchandising for the younger consumer. As many apparel retailers have realized, merchandise has got to be “trend forward” to be consistently competitive. As brands like Coldwater Creek have found out the hard way, when merchandise doesn’t change to keep up fashion and emerging trends, the results can be disastrous.
 
The bottom line is that, despite the fact that I don’t necessarily see a dramatic turnaround on tap, there will be plenty to talk about at this year’s RECon. The conference remains one of the industry’s most interesting and most enlightening national events, and every year there are surprises and unforeseen storylines that emerge. I’ll see you there!

What other topics do you see dominating the convention floor at this year’s RECon? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below or email me at Jeff@JeffGreenPartners.com.


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