Are We Nearing the End of Brick-and-Mortar Retail in the United States?

store clothes

Back in 2017, Becky Vaughn-Furlow wrote an article for The Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi) in which she posed an intriguing question: "Is brick-and-mortar retail in jeopardy?" Based on what I have seen in the small Mississippi town where I live, I'd have to say yes. There has been an exodus of brick-and-mortar retail over the last decade. I cannot think of more than a few product categories where my choices have increased; I can easily think of several where my choices have decreased. I can even think of a few where my choices went from few to none. These trends started long before the global COVID-19 pandemic, though it has likely accelerated them. At least, I know more than a few people who used to enjoy shopping and have not done so since it started.

The main contributing is appears to be online retail. I suspect there are other culprits as well (e.g., Walmart), but it is tough to ignore the role of online shopping in decimating our local options. Many local retailers have done a poor job of competing with online retail and have closed stores as a result.

Here's how Ms. Vaughn-Furlow put it:

America's shoppers are increasingly opting for online purchasing vs. in store shopping. Some of the reasons include convenience, not having to battle crowds, pricing, free shipping and more choices available.

Yep. Of course, the issue of product selection is a tough one because it really is a vicious cycle. When I go online because I can't find what I'm looking for locally, I'm making it less likely that the local businesses will stick around. And when they leave, my local selection will be even worse. This is exactly what has been happening over the last decade, and it has now reached the point in some product categories where I shop online because there is nobody left locally selling anything remotely close to what I'm looking for.

Can this trend be reversed, assuming we wanted to reverse it? That's the interesting part, to me at least. Ms. Vaughn-Furlow has several ideas about what local retail could do to better compete with online shopping. While few of the things on her list appeal to me, those that do include having many choices in stock, competitive pricing, and decent customer service. Improvements in these areas would make a difference, but they strike me as unrealistic.

For me, the primary appeal of shopping online includes having a much easier time finding what I'm looking for (i.e., far more choices) and not having to deal with crowded and poorly managed stores. If I knew I could find what I wanted at a local retailer, I'd be much more inclined to go there. And yet, almost every experience I have with local retail is negative. Even when I can manage to avoid the crowds by hitting the store at the right time of day, I inevitably encounter a mess of items that have not been properly re-stocked, difficulty finding what I'm looking for, rude employees who make it clear that they don't want to be there and have no information to offer, a painfully slow check-out process, and other annoyances. It seems silly to put myself through this if I do not need to do so.

I'll give you just one example of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Not too long ago, I did some research online to identify a wet/dry vacuum that would meet my needs. I determined that there was a local retailer that sold the brand, so I called them and asked about the specific model I wanted. Not only did they have it in stock, it was on sale and had a special promotion where they were throwing in some free attachments with it. I drove across town to the store immediately. When I got there, I found the correct aisle easily but could not find the model I had called about. The employees at the customer service desk informed me that they had never heard of the model and did not have it. "I don't know who you talked to, but I don't think we've ever had that." Talking to a supervisor did not help. I went home and bought the stupid thing online. It was on sale and came with the extra attachments.

There are many items I'd prefer to buy locally. The problem is that the experience I described above is far from atypical. I've had too many like it and some that were much worse. It is unlikely that I am ever going to enjoy shopping like some people do, but I can imagine a number of things local retailers could do that would make the experience less aversive. If they did, I'd be far more likely to visit them. Unfortunately, I have seen little evidence that they are interested in making these improvements.

In the end, I find myself thinking that the loss of brick-and-mortar retail will ultimately be the result of both increased competition from online retailers (with the lower prices, better selection, and added convenience they bring) and the piss-poor customer experience provided by too many local stores. I understand that they cannot compete on selection, price, or convenience, but they could compete on customer service. They could develop relationships with their local customers and provide experiences online retail cannot provide. If they aren't willing to do this, I guess will just have to learn to get by without them.