The cobblestones streets of New York’s SoHo are empty; few vehicles and virtually no foot traffic are in sight. Times Square, the crossroads of the world, is devoid of tourists; it’s now an eerie ghost town. Fifth Avenue, once the gem de la gem of retail, now features boarded up store fronts. The great retail avenues, not only in the Big Apple, and not only across the country, but across the globe, lay fallow and barren, casualties of an insidious plague. But no, this is not Armageddon, this is not the end of the world. We are human beings, we are resourceful, and we will survive.
While Darwin’s theories have no place when considering the cost of human life, survival of the fittest is a critical reality for all retailers: It is not the strongest of the species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is most responsive to change.
While the sky is clearly filled with dark storm clouds, it is definitely not falling. And while it may be hard to find a silver lining in the dark mantle hovering above as people are suffering, we may look at this as an opportunity to right egregious wrongs, amend our destructive and wasteful ways and reset our priorities.
Retail will survive, but retail must adjust. The path forward must be paved with truth, kindness and caring. This defining moment in history will be long remembered, studied and considered, and yet as we find ourselves mired in the moment, it must be understood that we will not be returning to normalcy, but rather to a new reality. And if we are smart, the new reality will be a better place. Retailers must strive toward a noble purpose. They have a responsibility to help the community and bolster society. This will not be a sprint to the finish line, but rather a marathon to a new beginning as we forge new relationships, new values and new philosophies.
We are compelled to reimagine the path forward as we walk the delicate line between public safety and economic stability. Clearly, the road begins with the health and safety of the community, protecting customers and workers alike while still opening a conduit of connection to the brand. A healthy balance of operation and health begins with the redefinition of relationships.
Going forward, what is the role of the suppliers and the landlords? It’s time for all involved to think long range rather than short term. Landlords and vendors must become partners, their survival depends on your survival. Landlords have to step up. If turnover is down 50 percent, then rents in the short term should be reduced accordingly. Retailers and landlords must work together toward an equitable and sustainable balance. In terms of vendors and supply chain, build relationships based on mutual health and wellbeing. Treat vendors the way you would treat your customers.
The retailers that best manage health issues and concerns are the ones that will survive. The ones that reimagine the channels of distribution will lead and forge ahead. Leaders will reinterpret the physical environment and its relationship with the virtual environment. While e-commerce and brick and mortar must remain spiritually united, there must be a fine line of differentiation going forward to avoid redundancies. As people hope to avoid crowds, basic and obvious adjustments must include modifying store hours, limiting the number of customers and employees in the store and reevaluating store layouts to provide ample spacing for social distancing. Retailers must also continue to develop their curbside pick-up services, making click and collect easy, safe and trouble free. As we adjust the customer in-store experience, a rethinking of fitting room protocol is also essential.
Throughout retail’s storied history, merchants have always examined the wants and needs of the community at large. In today’s uncertain environment, consumers value the comfort of home, the efficient set-up of a home office and the preparation of food. Home learning, health and wellness are now top priorities. While people stay home, they will spend less on fashion and more on home necessities. And while they may still spend on commodities such as T-shirts and jeans, for the short term they are less likely to spend on designer handbags. Reevaluate the consumption equation – luxury may struggle, but commodities and core items may flourish.
In the final analysis, remember who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with you in the eye of the storm. Did your partners, landlords and vendors support you as you weathered the squall or did they retreat to higher ground? As we reimagine, with visions of a better tomorrow, let’s build it back better than it was before. Although human nature is resistant to change, let’s remember, without change we don’t grow. In rebuilding consider the words of James Cash (J.C.) Penney, “Change is vital, improvement the logical form of change.”
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.