Twenty years ago, when the commercial Internet was just a handful of static Web pages and links, I started a list of predictions that have since proved very, very wrong: “No one will ever buy a car on the Internet.” “Our customers aren’t interested in trading stocks online — that’s what they pay us to do.” “Consumers aren’t comfortable giving a website their credit card number.”
But the biggest Internet myth of all has finally been busted.
Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, which long claimed immunity to disruption from Web-based competitors, are at last giving up the fight. According to Business Insider, 2017 retail bankruptcies are already setting records, with familiar names including Radio Shack, the Limited, Sports Authority and Payless Shoe Source already gone. Macy’s, J.C. Penney and other venerable brands are hanging in but plan to close more than 3,500 locations.
Web commerce pioneer Amazon, meanwhile, has quintupled its sales since 2010. It now sells five times as much as a teetering Sears, which has lost as much revenue since 2007 as Amazon has gained. Half of all U.S. households now subscribe to Amazon Prime, which includes free two-day delivery and original video content.
The Internet’s devastation of traditional retail is undeniable. And like many industries initially spared the “creative destruction” that hit music and books in the early days of the Internet, the disruption of retail seems to be happening all at once.
“How did you go bankrupt?” one character asks another in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” “Two ways,” the other answers. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
That pattern, as my co-author Paul Nunes and I explain in our work on “Big Bang Disruption,” reflects the fact that incumbent businesses often have enormous stashes of valuable assets to coast on, while benefiting from regulatory and legal barriers that, for a time, can keep technology-based innovations from reaching consumers (see Uber, Airbnb, YouTube and others).
Those assets are sold off one by one, and, as weaker competitors close, the companies that remain may see a boost in sales and market share, masking a slow-motion car crash already in progress. By the time the revolutionaries reach the palace gates, the guards have all been fired.
Yet the fall of brick-and-mortar retail was hardly inevitable. In 1996, Internet shopping was at best a gimmick. It grew steadily, though, increasing about 15 percent to 25 percent each year. By 2016, Web-based commerce accounted for nearly $100 billion in holiday sales. (Even then, it was still only 10 percent of the total.)
Steady growth of Web-based commerce
To sustain that kind of growth, Amazon, eBay, Apple, Zappos, Dell and others innovated relentlessly. They added secure payments, video and other enhancements to their websites. Behind the scenes, they built state-of-the-art warehouses and distribution networks, investing in robotics, drones and powerful data analysis that taught them what customers wanted and when. Products can now reorder themselves through voice-activated, smart-home hubs such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home.
Online leaders are even experimenting with brick-and-mortar outlets, showing up the incumbents in their own strip malls. Apple Stores, with cashier-free checkout, in-store classes and the customer service genius bar, are consistently mobbed. Amazon is testing grocery stores that automatically charge customers when they exit, relying on new technologies including computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
As traditional retailers cut staff, dimmed the lights and left aging inventory on the shelves, Web-based sellers continued investing everything they had and more. They added free shipping, easy returns, same-day delivery, targeted promotions, customer reviews and mobile interfaces, all of which transformed online shopping into a richer experience than getting in the car, driving to the mall, looking for parking, and hoping that the product you want is actually in stock and that someone is available to ring you up.
Meanwhile, automated warehouses and the absence of physical locations that needed to be leased, heated, staffed and policed regardless of whether customers were in the store increasingly made it possible for online sellers to charge less for goods, sometimes much less.
Eventually, Web commerce became better and cheaper than brick-and-mortar stores — the catalysts that trigger explosive Big Bang Disruption. Once the reaction started, it was only a matter of time before the doors began to close at malls nationwide.
Still, the incumbents had plenty of warning. They could have studied the very public successes and failures of the start-ups and adapted the ones that worked. They could have leveraged their long-standing relationships with suppliers and customers to fight off the upstarts, and they could have turned their ubiquitous physical locations into formidable competitive advantages.
They didn’t do so. Or at least not completely — Best Buy does allow customers to order online and pick up merchandise in the store, but only if they’re willing to wait in the “returns” line.
To be fair, brick-and-mortar incumbents typically don’t have access to the kind of venture capital that start-ups do. And traditional retailers still resist innovations that might cannibalize sales from their own stores or that might offend powerful partners. Those self-imposed limits have proved short-sighted. In 1999, Whirlpool executives told me they wouldn’t use the Web to interact directly with appliance customers for fear of alienating retailers such as Circuit City. Then Circuit City stopped carrying appliances. Then Circuit City went out of business.
Store employees are the innocent victims in this story, but even there, the reality isn’t as bad as failing retailers claim. According to Michael Mandel, chief economist at the Progressive Policy Institute, Web commerce has added more U.S. jobs than it has destroyed. “Since 2007, Web commerce has created 397,000 new jobs,” he said, “far exceeding the 76,000 full-time equivalent jobs lost in the same period in brick-and-mortar retail.”
The new jobs pay more, too. Hourly workers in Web commerce, including fulfillment centers, earn 26 percent more than their retail counterparts, and those pay gains apply nationwide. “Overall, wage and salary payments to Web commerce workers have increased by almost $19 billion since 2007,” Mandel said. “By comparison, real wage and salary payments to workers in general retail have risen by just under $4 billion over the same period.”
Some retailers, notably Walmart, have made significant investments in the Internet, successfully integrating online and offline sales, transforming the liability of expensive real estate into assets.
The rest? Well, the rest were alternately telling one another that the Internet was a fad and a bubble while bemoaning their fate as inescapable. They were caught in the grief cycle made famous by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in which patients with terminal illnesses go through predictable stages of denial, anger, depression, bargaining and, ultimately, acceptance.
As a retail apocalypse now unfolds, besieged managers selling off whatever assets remain are still trying to convince themselves they’ll survive — a fantasy that investors long ago stopped believing. “Don’t count us out, we’re not dead,” Macy’s chief financial officer recently told the Wall Street Journal. “While we’ll be operating fewer stores, we have the opportunity to make our stores better.”
Sears, nearing the end of a 30-year implosion, can’t seem to decide which stage of grief it’s in. In March, the company acknowledged “substantial doubt” about its future. But in a blog post last week, chief executive Edward Lampert back-pedaled, writing that although “the past year will be remembered as one of the most challenging periods for ‘brick and mortar’ retailers,” the company is merely “one of the many affected by these headwinds.”
Sears, which invented remote shopping in the 1890s with its catalogue, must now find a way to “adapt,” Lampert wrote. In the teeth of better and cheaper innovators and a dearth of any new ideas of their own, the company is still “fighting like hell.”
But at this point, it may just be tilting at windmills.