Dead retail stores of our lives

I read a story today on Forbes’ website arguing that Best Buy, through a combination of the Internet (e.g. Amazon), poor customer service, poor internal inventory and logistics and a general societal shift away from bricks-and-mortar retailers, is slowly headed toward a rapid fall.

I’ve thought for a couple of years now that Best Buy (where I gladly shop, bought my last computer and buy gift cards) would face challenges in surviving five years, but attributed that mostly to a weak economy, a shift to digital streaming services cutting out a lot of the hardware/multimedia sales, and the shift to online each playing roles. In my primitive scenario, Best Buy is more a victim of circumstance than self-inflicter, or even victim of Amazon. This article argues otherwise — and, by extension, implies that Best Buy’s internal and external efforts are failing or fabricated.

I’m not so sure the author is right, but his arguments can’t be dismissed outright, even if I suspect he relishes writing bad news about Best Buy. And on the heels of Sears/Kmart closing stores and being derided as pathetically managed and short-sighted, we may be entering the last phase of traditional retailing.

I don’t need many excuses to think nostalgically (or really, to think about anything but the present), so that article — and this handy list of defunct retailers — sent my mind toward places I used to shop at that no longer exist.

 In my hometown, for a small example, there was the long-closed local comic book store near the church. Grocery shopping used to be at Pathmark, which survives, but not in Connecticut. My father worked as an auditor for Caldor for many years; the auditors were among the early layoffs as the company slid toward liquidation, though getting laid off first meant the stock options were at least (supposedly) worth something. Not too many years after, Bradlees was gone — they used to have pretty decent food, so if you were in a pinch, you could grab lunch after shopping. At the Stratford location, once you went in the main entrance, the music/movies department was just after you took the first left. I surely bought many albums there, though Stone Temple Pilots’ “No. 4” sticks out in my mind.

At that same shopping center, KB Toys used to have a presence. That’s gone, too, and so is the whole chain. Places I didn’t even go to, but saw often because of their ads or signs — Levitz Furniture and Nobody Beats the Wiz, for instance — have faded away, not directly affecting me but still a reminder of what’s changed. Somehow, Bob’s Furniture survives.

In Old Saybrook, Conn., where my grandmother has lived for 30 years, I was too young to remember Sage Allen, but old enough to remember the giant storefront sign after it closed and hear about what once was. There’s a Wal-Mart in town, now, though a local hardware store survives (through the grace of its Ace Hardware affiliation, no doubt), but the old town is essentially an unorganized outlet mall.
My mom can tell of many stores in Bridgeport, Conn., that no longer exist, and of Howard Johnson’s when it was a big deal, not a bunch of hotels and a few unaffiliated restaurants struggling along.

What’s going to happen with all the vacant spaces? There aren’t a lot of big-time retailers left, given all the bankruptcies, acquisitions and online shopping. Loans aren’t easy to get (in some instances), and commercial real estate isn’t exactly at its peak. Caldor and Bradlees locations sometimes sat for years in a better shopping economy; will we come back to prime Borders, Sears, Kmart, and Filene’s Basement locales in five years and see the same emptiness? What about 10 or 15 years?

In some cases, there’s definitely a loss of choice and competition. I don’t know that the deals that vastly strengthened CVS and Rite-Aid (in particular, buying Brooks and Eckerd, one of which was next door to my old newspaper) destroyed competition in the pharmacy sector, and they didn’t mean (many) lost jobs or shuttered locations, but there was a clear advantage for the company and an unclear effect (good, bad or neutral) for the customer. There were definitely areas in which customers had two options, and now had two locations, but only one option. That’s a discussion for another day.

Don’t get me wrong; online retail offers better delivery, inventory, ease of use and — importantly — customer service than many traditional retailers, living or deceased. I’m not against acquisitions or badly run companies suffering the consequences. I don’t know that we’re losing something indispensable, but there’s still a loss, at least for those of us of a certain age. I guess the question is, how many years before we all have this same nostalgia for that old chain Best Buy?

If you’re still in the mood to read more about department stores, the best resource is long-time copy editor David Sullivan, who writes about editing but also department stores of the past. There’s also The Department Store [Online] Museum.

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