Retail Rap: 2013 Outlook

BY Jeff Green

While I enjoy reading the annual sales predictions and yearly retail real estate outlook columns published each year, they often have a tendency to get bogged down in the details. When forecasting in the medium- to long-term, it’s often best to focus on the big-picture trends — an approach that not only avoids the all-too-common problem of missing the forest for the trees, but provides important insights about where the industry may be headed, not just in six or 12 months, but in six or 12 years. With that perspective in mind, I see several significant developments in store for the remainder of 2013.

Any discussion about what is on tap for 2013 must begin with the economy. The consensus for some time now has been that we are experiencing a modest— some might say sluggish — economic recovery. While some recent indicators remain promising, there is reason for caution. To me, the biggest worry, and the issue most likely to influence the pace of the recovery, is consumer confidence. This story has flown under the radar, but consumer confidence has actually been eroding for several months. The continuing fiscal cliff-driven uncertainty has contributed to this decline, with the general perception that we seem to be bouncing from one crisis to another without addressing any of the underlying fiscal/social issues. These are the deadline-driven stories the media loves to cover, and the overexposure contributes to consumer uncertainty.

As I mentioned, there are several indicators that continue to head in the right direction — the housing market is improving steadily, and the Dow recently hit its highest level since 2007 — but there seems to be a disconnect for the average American. Such structural improvements are not translating into the consumer’s pocketbook — at least not yet. This is especially noteworthy for retailers, because it contributes to a subtle and corrosive sense of uncertainty, holding back spending. Consumers are still nervous about opening up their wallets, and retailers might subsequently be more cautious (or at least a little less ambitious) with new store openings.

The recent announcement that Barnes & Noble plans to close one third of their stores in the next ten years highlights the degree to which the contours of the retail landscape are changing. As strange as it may sound, I wonder if Barnes & Noble’s plan might even be too optimistic: I wonder if those ten years might end up being closer to two. Consumers’ tastes are changing incredibly quickly, and “e-tailing” is exerting an increasing influence on the traditional brick-and-mortar business model. I don’t see Barnes & Noble as an outlier or an anomaly, but perhaps more of a retail canary in the coal mine. Their difficult decisions are an indication that retailers recognize that the way people buy is changing.

The biggest difference-maker between openings and closings in the next year will be straightforward: size. In this economic climate, it matters more than ever. Smaller stores and smaller concepts are doing better, and the industry is seeing the benefits of reduced footprints. We will still see some chains continuing to open stores and some specialty retailers going into smaller markets that they have not looked at in the past. Brands like Rue 21, Francesca’s and Hot Topic are on the upswing and taking advantage of new markets for growth.

Larger physical stores will continue to have significant inventory challenges, and are more vulnerable to closings and market pressure, so traditionally large-footprint chains are continuing to think small. Wal-Mart’s Neighborhood Market locations are one example, and Best Buy is continuing to open Best Buy mobile stores while closing its trademark locations. “Going small” might be a tougher proposition for Barnes & Noble. Despite their success with the Nook, they might have to reinvent themselves entirely to survive over the long-term. In fact, we might ultimately be on the way to coming full circle back to the smaller neighborhood book stores of the past. In 2013, a year of economic uncertainty and retail real estate downsizing, taking some strategic steps toward smaller layouts and a more nimble and flexible business model might just represent a “win” for any brand.

What trends do you see on the horizon for 2013? What else should retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Best Buy change to compete in a shifting retail landscape? Comment below to join the conversation, or email me directly at [email protected].

Click here for past columns by Jeff Green.


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