Have you noticed the number of empty storefronts around? (For a list of recent store closings, see here.) Business failure unfortunately is part of an economic recession, but it also follows changes in consumer patterns and market demands. Although studies debate the advantages of online versus brick and mortar stores (see here, here and here), consumers are increasingly more comfortable shopping online. Increased security and user-friendly return policies (not to mention all of those free shipping deals) appear to be fostering that trend.
Online or virtual stores also have a very different business model and cost structure (see, e.g., here). A small workforce in one location can service all of a company’s online customers. Compare that model with the brick and mortar model where a company operating in more than one location needs, at a minimum, to own or lease property in each location, pay maintenance and taxes for each facility, retain employees at each facility and comply with the law of each jurisdiction. (For interesting comparisons, see here, here and here.) Accordingly, brick and mortar stores are relying to some extent on certain intangibles—e.g., consumers wanting to touch and see what they are buying, wanting personal service, etc.—to offset these additional costs.
So is it the economy, the changing market or (as is likely) some combination of factors causing companies like Blockbuster, Borders and Harry and David’s to struggle? (For my prior post related to Borders’ financial challenges, see here.) And if it is the latter, will traditional brick and mortar retail stores make a strong comeback when the economy recovers? I am not so sure. I think we may see more retail bankruptcies end like Circuit City’s case—i.e., Circuit City’s core business continues, as does the use of its name, but only in an online form (and under new ownership; see here). Although I appreciate the efficiencies of this model for both the company and the consumer, I do not think it is necessarily the best trend for us as communities and neighbors. As the commercial says, having a face-to-face conversation with a salesperson about your product questions: “priceless.”