Retailers need to get creative

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As 2017 is about to begin, the mass market retailing community confronts many more questions than answers and faces many difficult decisions in the months ahead. New faces, new formats, new merchandising approaches — all appear in short supply as the industry attempts to cope with a disappointing year and move on to a new beginning, one where creativity, often missing of late, gets a new look — and a new level of ­emphasis.

MMR OpinionThough the Christmas numbers haven’t been released yet, they promise to be disappointing. The holiday selling season never quite got started, despite the ample period between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Perhaps Black Friday, and the monthlong event it has become, got in the way, confusing customers about sales and sale periods and bringing department and specialty stores into the rush to lure shoppers far in advance of the holiday selling season.

Perhaps the problem was the absence of a bold holiday product or category, one that shoppers simply had to buy. Maybe prices got in the way, either too high or too low. It could be that the wrong items were featured or promoted — or that, this year, there was no “right” item to feature or promote.

Speaking of excitement, perhaps the stores themselves lacked sparkle, and customers either stayed away or turned increasingly to online offerings, finally realizing that convenience often meant skipping a trip to the local mall or strip center entirely and cranking up the computer ­instead.

Whatever the issues, Christmas shopping lacked the usual sparkle this year, and consumers, faced with the usual array of options and choices, finally did what retailers annually expect them to do: stay away.

In any case, what was notable in the mass retail marketplace this year was a lack of excitement. New stores mirrored older ones, as did new executives. Fixing problems became the priority rather than setting new directions and aiming for new levels of success. The presidential campaign, in the midst of the rush to prepare for Christmas, further confused things, distracting retailers at that time of year when distractions could not be tolerated.

Gone, too, for the moment, was a new class of retail leaders to replace the old. The largest retailers, many of them, brought back or promoted industry veterans. Key positions have gone unfilled. As a result, creativity has suffered. New formats were conspicuous by their absence. New approaches to merchandise and merchandising were in short supply. New reasons to get shoppers into stores were notable for their rare appearances. New categories were secondary in thinking, as retailers chose to go with those categories that worked in the past.

In personnel terms, departures outpaced arrivals. At Walmart, several key merchants left, going on to opportunities they viewed as more challenging or potentially more rewarding. Much the same happened at Target, as a cohesive senior executive team failed to materialize, a hardship given that retailer’s struggles of late.

In the chain drug industry, much the same was true, as the industry leaders failed to diversify in terms of new faces at senior levels.

Perhaps, as has been said of late, mass retailing is getting old, both in terms of concepts and in terms of the people needed to formulate new ones. Perhaps online retailing, so long viewed as a threat, really has siphoned off the cream in terms of value and excitement. Maybe it really is easier to shop online — and to find those items that shoppers really want.

So as 2017 is about to begin, the clock continues to tick. In the new year, however, it will tick to a more serious beat. This time, the year in question cannot be one for retrenching or reloading or reformulating plans or ideas. This time, mass retailing must reinvent itself, must play in a new retailing world, one that includes both a rebirth of specialty retailing and an online component that, while powerful, are no more challenging than those which conventional retailing has successfully competed against in the past.

So it’s on to 2017 — a year that could — some say should — be one of the most consequential that mass retailing has faced in this century.



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