Monday, April 23, 2018
Business

Despite 25 years of changes, the retailing song remains the same

All I wanted was four pairs of socks.

Gift card in hand, I asked the Nordstrom clerk where I could find them. Not here, came the answer. But he could find them lickity split at another store, he said, whipping out the latest in retail technology, an iPad.

Several apologies, two cash registers and 15 minutes later, the socks were ordered.

"You know, we used to do this all in a few minutes on the phone," apologized the exasperated clerk.

Nordstrom will certainly tune up its latest brush with tech gadgetry. Still, the experience struck me as I retire this week after 25 years on the beat: the retail world once again bungling the automation of a task that it was already doing well. To steal a phrase, the more retailing changes, the more it stays the same.

In my time . . .

• Nothing was altered more drastically than the grocery store landscape. Publix gained market share while Walmart muscled its way from zero to second place in only seven years. Albertsons is gone, Winn-Dixie and USave are shadows of what they were, and Kash n' Karry survived by transforming itself to Sweetbay. Meantime, Fresh Market and Whole Foods arrived to woo foodies, while Aldi, Save-A-Lot and now dollar stores go after the low price, limited selection crowd. Despite many attempts, no one in Florida could turn a profit from online groceries.

• A parade of department stores disappeared: Maas Brothers, JByron, Burdines, Robinson's, Maison Blanche, Gayfer's, Ivey's, Montgomery Ward and Jacobson's. They were replaced by midmarket Kohl's, Dillard's, Macy's and high-end newcomers Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. That, plus the arrival of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, shut up the "we're not worthy" naysayers convinced Tampa Bay was some fashion backwater. Saks left Denver and San Diego but has been in Tampa for 14 years.

• Reflecting changed shopping habits, Sunshine Mall, Clearwater Mall, Gateway Mall, Pinellas Square, East Lake Square and Floridan Mall were leveled as replacement malls sprung up further out in new suburbs of Brandon, Citrus Park, Wiregrass and by 2014, an outlet mall in Wesley Chapel. Once International Plaza and Ikea opened, about $1 billion in annual retail sales (and the sales tax revenue that goes with it) left Pinellas County as residents took their shopping to Hills­borough County.

• Many local chains vanished: Eckerd Drug, Joel n' Jerry, JumboSports, Colony Shops, Homestyle Buffet and What a World. But thanks to locally grown Outback Steakhouse, Checkers and Hooters, the bay area is fertile breeding ground for restaurant chains — Bonefish Grille, Lee Roy Selmon's, First Watch, Carmel Cafe, Pete & Shorty's, Burger Monger, Red Elephant Cafe, PDQ, LifeFit Foods, Brass Tap and World of Beer.

• HSN evolved from a bargain basement carnival to a legitimate fashion and home decor retailer. The pioneer TV shopping network now gets 43 percent of its $3 billion annual sales online and last week caught flak from mobile app customers grumbling they had to watch ads for a casino to play HSN video games on their cellphone.

• Internet retailing wiped out some big electronics, music, book and video chains. Nobody figured you could sell shoes to women online until Zappo's sold $1 billion of them annually. Amazon.com, already a retail colossus, is now moving into upscale fashion but fighting an uphill political battle to keep its advantage of not collecting sales tax.

But today eight of the 10 largest online retailers including Walmart and Sears are deeply entrenched in running stores, too. They are the established players morphing into full-fledged multi-channel retailers that sell anywhere a shopper wants to browse or buy — in a store, at home in their pajamas, on a laptop at Starbucks or from a smartphone that doubles as a catalog filled with customer reviews and a point-and-shoot credit card.

The point is more technology just for the sake of technology overlooks what has not changed. Shoppers still balance three factors in choosing where they buy: price, selection and how a retailer treats them.

My bet is they will be doing the same 25 years from now.

Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.

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