Retail Apocalypse Will Affect Us All

If for no other reason than self-interest, I am hoping that Sears doesn’t slide into oblivion.

That became more likely with the recent announcement the retail giant will soon close 72 more stores.

Then came more news that it would cut 400 fulltime jobs at its corporate office and in support functions.

I’m concerned because Sears is where I bought our lawnmower and my newest set of glasses. It’s also a ready source of clothing and tools (at least until it shed its Craftsman line).

Then there is its nostalgic value. As long as I can remember, there has always been a Sears nearby at which to shop, regardless of where I lived.

Yet, another memory plays in my mind. It involves a friend whose father was once employed by Sears. When he turned 55, the company offered him three choices:

  • Work twice as many hours for the same pay
  • Take a demotion for lower pay
  • Accept an early retirement package

Not surprisingly, he chose early retirement.

Cosmic Karma

Retail Apocalypse Will Affect Us All | Ken Walker WriterThe corporate titans who issued those alternatives are long gone. Yet I can’t get over the feeling there is a touch of cosmic karma in the retailer’s current troubles.

They bring to mind the collapse of Circuit City.

You may remember the ill-fated electronics chain’s last CEO, who decided laying off its experienced employees and replacing them with low-paid workers was a good idea.

Not quite. So many customers complained and stopped shopping there that the whole chain collapsed. Karma indeed.

Serious Job Losses

Where this will all end up is anyone’s guess. The demise of retailers has stirred considerable news coverage this year. Like this story, which noted how over six decades—starting in 1960—wholesale and retail trade’s share of all employment shrank from 15.9 percent to 11.5 percent.

That includes a plunge from last October to May of 90,000 jobs in general merchandise stores, accelerating the overall bleeding of 500,000 jobs in department stores since 2001.

The latter is 18 times the number of jobs lost in the coal industry. This topic is of intense interest in West Virginia, where the demise of coal has plunged our state’s economy into the doldrums.

A Harbinger of the Future

The possibility of more retailers biting the dust carries frightening implications, from decaying downtowns to empty malls becoming magnets for tumbleweeds and squatters.The possibility of more retailers biting the dust carries frightening implications, from decaying downtowns to empty malls becoming magnets for tumbleweeds and squatters.

But it goes deeper than that. The acceleration of online shopping and nosedives in the retail world may serve as a harbinger of developments in other areas.

Recently, a friend talked of forecast that our educational system would morph into an online environment with one instructor teaching students tuning in from home.

Thus, no need for classroom buildings, cafeterias, custodial staff, and other infrastructure.

“So, what’s going to happen to all those teachers?” she asked. “Where will everyone work? Or will we all just depend on the government?”

Far-Reaching Impact

This virtual education future isn’t so far-fetched, considering that when a friend spent three weeks in China last fall, he taught his university classes in the Midwest via Skype.

Whether it will go as far as our other friend fretted about remains to be seen.

After all, every time a rather gloomy pronouncement comes along, humans adjust to render it obsolete (remember environmental alarmists in the 1970s predicting that all people would vanish before the turn of the century?)

Still, coping with the retail apocalypse will stretch our collective imaginations and resources in untold ways. The impact is likely to be far greater than where I buy my next lawnmower.

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