Something interesting has been happening over the past 10 years and it is reminiscent of the “good old days”… The 80s, 90s, and early 2000s saw a shift from family owned small businesses and restaurants to big box retailers, chain restaurants, and malls across America. There was also the likes of Walmart moving into small towns and becoming the center of commerce, putting family owned general stores that stood for decades out of business almost overnight. Then there was Sears, a pioneer in catalog sales, shifting away from their core of catalogs and into malls. Those decades were profit years for these giants of industry as they dominated the consumer market. But then in the mid-2000s, something happened: huge revenue gains turned to single-digit growth, or worse—flat revenue.
Now in the world of small business, slight growth to even flat revenue numbers isn’t a bad thing; typically, that means the bills are still being paid, employees are receiving paychecks, and owners are still getting money in their back pockets. However, these giants of industry are public organizations with shareholders demanding for ever-increasing profits, not single-digit growth or flat revenue projections. So, what did they do? The only thing they really knew how to do at the time: they began to cut cost. At first, these cost cutting tactics were barely even noticeable to your everyday consumer; typically, it meant a few less employees on the store floor, slightly reduced inventory, and maintenance items that were overlooked… But these tactics were not enough and revenues continued to flatten out, and for some, even drop a bit. So the cycle continued. Management continued cost cutting metrics to protect profits. This led to even less employees on the store floor, even less inventory, and maintenance items that continued to take a hit. Overtime, consumers started to notice these changes… Stores that once had just about anything they ever needed ended up not having their sizes anymore, help was becoming a little more difficult to find, checkout lines were growing longer, and stores started to look dated and in disrepair. Sears is almost a classic case detailed in this great article. Sure, if there had been no competition for consumer dollars, these industry giants could have possibly held on to consumers a bit longer, but there was more competition.
Enter ecommerce and Amazon… While big box retail was focused on cutting cost; smaller dot.com businesses were focusing on customer needs. Consumers were beginning to find that instead of dealing with long lines, increasingly clueless employees, and struggling to find exactly what they were looking for, they could now find exactly what they need and have it shipped to their front door in days, all from the comfort of their own homes. We also saw the rebirth of locally owned boutique shops that boasted quality and customized products with great customer service and experiences.
Restaurants were no different. When the major chains moved into new locations, they offered great food, settings, and bargain prices. Just like the boom of retail, consumers flocked to these new eateries. Business was booming and thousands of chain restaurants were popping up in clusters across the country almost overnight. What these chain restaurants didn’t realize at the time, is that this rapid opening of locations was the very thing that was going to kill them… Certain geographic regions typically only have so much disposable revenue that goes into the economy. However, at the time, that did not factor into these organizations’ business plans. Essentially, where competition was making revenue, others would follow suit. Shortly in each geographic hotspot, instead of having one or two major restaurants, there was an explosion of chains fighting for the same consumer dollar. It didn’t take long for this heavy competition to take its toll on these chains, and revenues began to slow or flatten out. Similar to big box retail, these major chains had shareholders to keep happy… As a result, this led to cost cutting metrics similar to what was happening to retail. Establishments had reduced staff, food quality took a hit, and certain locations started to look dated and in disrepair and consumers started to notice… Again, similar to retail, had there been no competition, these chain restaurants might have held on a little longer—but there was. Just as major chains were struggling, locally owned craft restaurants began to pop up. These craft restaurants offered tailored menus to the community, high quality food, and drinks with an atmosphere to match. Slowly but surely, consumers began finding these new craft eateries and abandoning once-popular chains.
Fast-forward to today’s market… Big box retailers and chain restaurants are failing left and right. Sears, JC Penny, Macy’s, Staples and others are closing hundreds of locations monthly, and restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s, Outback, and Bertucci’s are struggling to stay open. The likes of Walmart that once took over small towns shuttering locally owned general stores, are shutting down themselves. Once-flooded malls are closing their doors or struggling to stay open as attendance continues to wane… All of these changes are giving rebirth to the locally owned small businesses across the country. Once-struggling cities and towns are now being built as hubs around these locally owned boutique shops and craft restaurants. Consumers have grown tired of cost cutting metrics that lead to lower quality products and experiences that big box retailers and chain restaurants continue to offer. What we’re beginning to see is almost reminiscent of times before big box retail and chain restaurants took over the country! Now, let’s be real for a minute. The concept is not lost on us that major retailers and big box stores will always be around. Organizations such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Best Buy have seen some real turnarounds as of late. However, a focus on cost cutting and the lack of innovation within these industries are going to continue to take a toll in the long run. Only when these once-giants of industry focus on true innovation and focus more on the customer, will they overcome the huge challenge that lies ahead of them.
One last thought: in a way, we can point back to times being similar to the early 1900s. In the early 1900s, Sears launched their Catalog, and at the time, it was a true game-changer for retail. If you’ve never looked at one, take a look (1918 Catalog) at the similarities to the Amazon of today; they had essentially anything you could imagine and delivered directly to your front door. Sears was extremely innovative for its time! Then in 1993, they closed the doors to the catalog due to rising cost, and they never looked back. Interesting to think that in July of 1994, Amazon was created; they became an online catalog of virtually anything you could want, delivered right to your door. If only all the manpower and knowledge of Sears’s executive team had focused on ways to innovate vs. cut cost, their history could have been written very differently…. While things may change, in a way they still stay the same… The Sears catalog and Amazon are essentially the same business model 100 years apart.