Thursday, February 14, 2008

Retail running to catch up

I am quite proud to say that I believe I am the sole retail representative at the Kidsummit today. One of the moderators in a meeting today said to me, “that’s great that you are here. You people don’t usually come to our events.” And she’s right. Retail in general is an industry that lags behind in almost every way. If you want to feel like an enlightened, terrifically-smart individual, go work for a retailer and keep your ear to the ground for news from other industries.

Why is this? Personal consumer consumption, and in turn retail, makes up the vast majority of our GDP. So why are we behind the times? As a whole, shouldn’t we believing the charge toward newness. In short, yes, we should. Though in reality, no, we don’t. And that must change. It’s no wonder that so much shopping is flocking to .com and independent retailers, and away from chains. The creators of truly innovative and new properties are fed up with the brick and mortar mentality. I don’t blame them – at times, I am fed up, too. Brick and mortar, as physical objects, can’t flex, can’t adapt to change. Their rigidity, sadly, translates to the mindsets of many, though not all, people who make their careers in retail. Unfortunate, yes. Inevitable, no.

In an effort to disclose my motivation in writing this post, without violating my company blogging policy (a violation of which could have me immediately fired), I think I am safe to say that I work for a retailer that is attempting to stage a turn-around. Welcome to the club, right? We only need to look to the front page of any major newspaper last week to learn that retailers are laying off managers in droves. The health of retail companies is directly and strongly correlated to the health of the economy. If the U.S. housing market leads the charge toward the dreaded “R” word, then retail companies will find themselves in a pinch in no time. Once Target starts reporting negative comps, you can be sure the rest will soon follow.

So how can I, a retail manager, possibly be optimistic about the immediate future of the industry? For one, I studied economics. The idea of cycles cannot be better illustrated that in the history of economies. They go up, they go down, and then back up again.

Two, while yes I do work in retail, I work in a department called Trend and Innovation. Some people think we don’t do anything of value because we do no blocking and tackling. I would go to the mat with anyone who takes that view – I would argue that to not innovate, to not pay attention to trend is to commit economic suicide. “Reinvent, or die.” Do I wish we took projects from concept to execution? Sure – my entire career has embraced the whole process, and I love that. I miss it. For all the sexiness surrounding jobs in “strategy” and “big ideas”, strategy is rendered useless in the absence of flawless execution.

Lastly, I draw some of my optimism from bars and pubs. At the first sign of recession, even in the midst of the Great Depression, bars prosper because of their ability to comfort people and provide a sense of community in times of sadness and distress. Retailers, particularly family-friendly ones, have the rare opportunity to also be places of community, inspiration. They can help people rediscover wonder and imagination, if they are willing to invest in imagination themselves. Disney flourished in the 1930’s, amidst very difficult economic times. That decade saw the birth of Pluto, Goofy, DOnald Duck, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Mr. Disney was a genius, not because of his education or professional background, but because of his ability to embrace the very best attributes of a child – the ability to “get through” by using his imagination.

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