Who's Minding the Store?

Written by Bill Leebens

Much has been made of the decline in number of independent audio retailers; blame for the phenomenon generally falls upon Amazon and big box stores like Best Buy. We commented upon the phenomenon with the cover cartoon of our very first issue of Copper, and managed to ruffle a few feathers.

But what if there’s another phenomenon at play? What if there are just too many stores out there, period?

Having assiduously avoided working in retail my whole adult life, I stumbled upon some stats which caught me by surprise. The United States has double the retail space per capita of the next country on the list, the United Kingdom. The numbers are not completely up to date, but the relationships remain the same: the US has nearly 50 square feet of retail space for each of our 319 million folks. The UK has about 23 sq ft per person, for their population of 64 million. Other countries have far, far less:  Canada has 13 sq ft per person; Australia has half that, at 6.5 sf. Further down the list, India has only 2 sq ft per person; Mexico, only 1.5 sq ft per person.

As is always the case, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and can result in incorrect conclusions. I could find no comprehensive list which includes every major developed country, and the inability to find stats for Japan and China is particularly maddening.

Having said that, anyone visiting New York, San Francisco or any of several gentrifying cities will quickly arrive at the question: just how many Sephora stores does the world need? How many can the world support?

For many retail chains, the answer to both questions is an embarrassed, “umm, not as many as we thought.” As seen in these pieces from Time, The Motley Fool and Forbes, many major retailers have had to trim back their operations by closing stores—in the cases of Sports Authority, American Apparel and The Limited, all once booming and prosperous, closing ALL their stores.

Buh-bye. Last one to leave, turn out the lights, okay?

Even the ubiquitous drugstore Walgreen’s is closing down locations. Retail leaders Sears and JC Penney, geared to the needs of the middle class, find their very existence in question following post-recession  downturns in middle class incomes, allied with some remarkably boneheaded business decisions (like Sears buying Kmart and JCP choosing an ex-Apple guru to guide them).  In its latest 10-K filing with the SEC, Sears admitted what many have said for years: “Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” Yes, Sears—SEARS—just said they might be doomed. The company that defined retail selling in America might be going goodbye.

As usual, there is a contrarian contingent. In an interesting piece from The Atlantic, Amanda Kolson Hurley points out that ,”If 3.4 percent of malls are dying, then 96.6 percent of them aren’t.” She also quotes another writer “asking a longtime worker at a dying mall in Dallas where all the customers had gone. ‘Better malls,’ she said.”

Those are remarkably reasonable points, rarities in a topic rife with hysterical pronouncements. Hurley’s conclusion is also reasonable: shoppers are more pressed for time than ever, have less money than ever, and are forced to combine their required shopping with their recreational time. Therefore, the stores or malls which offer not just needed items but an experience to boot—will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

And indeed, stores in an unexpected sector appear to be thriving. Home Depot may be closing stores, but small, independent hardware stores are doing very well. There is an experiential aspect to visiting a century-old store with a depth of stock that allows them to match the hardware of the Queen Anne cottage you’re restoring—and there’s the aspect of experience, as well. One store owner was quoted in the linked article as saying, “we give you more expert knowledge versus somebody who just moved from the paint section to the grill section and is now in charge of the plants” —obviously slamming the type of help one might find at Home Depot.

What might all this mean for audio stores?

I would suggest that the twin forms of experience are needed to thrive: first, going to the store has to be fun, and entertaining—which is why we’ve seen new audio stores open up which have coffee bars, listening lounges, or record stores attached. Second, the audio specialist has to have specialist knowledge. Like the staff in a small hardware store, they’ll need to be able to really help folks. In the case of audio, the sales staff bloody well better know more than the average Best Buy blue-shirt.

Start with that, work to be a part of your community, and become known in the larger audio community outside your local audience. All this seems pretty obvious to me…but I’m a marketing guy. And admittedly, I’m not risking my own money in the brick and mortar world.

I appreciate those who do bet on themselves, and bring their professional expertise to a local audience. Best of luck to them all!

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