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Inside America's Retail Apocalypse

I've been reading Bloomberg's special report, Inside America's Retail Apocalypse, in which they document the recent wave of retail closures across the US. I've noticed that none of the articles in this series, of which there are currently six, point directly at what I think is the real cause, though the second—a feature about a Miami shopping center catering exclusively to the wealthy—comes close.

It's the Economy, Stupid #

The problem is the the US retail industry depends on the ability and willingness of middle-class consumers to go shopping, and the middle class is shrinking. If they're lucky, they're getting rich. Most of the middle class isn't lucky.

At this point an armchair economist familiar with the work of John Maynard Keynes might suggest that the solution is simple. We need only correct the economic trends that have led to the contraction of the middle class.

Unfortunately, the problem is more complicated than a student of Keynes might realize at first. The powers that be have no trouble with existing trends that threaten the American middle class, and by this I do not mean either the Democratic or Republican parties. I mean the billionaires and corporations funding their campaigns.

Moreover, the lack of demand that lies at the root of the retail sector's woes cannot be blamed entirely on the fact that most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Putting money back where it belongs, in the hands of the workers, won't be enough to bolster consumer demand. Retail has been its own worst enemy in many respects. Brick-and-mortar retail shopping is boring, unpleasant, tedious, and time-consuming.

Nobody to Blame But Themselves #

A shopping trip often consists of driving to a series of locations, walking around inside sterile, depressing buildings that are inadequately cooled in summer and overheated the rest of the year, and being visually assaulted with near-endless arrays of shoddily made products that you don't actually want but have been manipulated by advertising into thinking you want or need.

You'll be followed around and offered help by clerks who would rather be anywhere but where they are (who can blame them?), and their help is rarely helpful. Instead, and this is especially the case if you're black, their offers of help are a reminder that you are under surveillance.

Simply buying a new pair of jeans can be a saga if one isn't just the right height and weight. Sizes are not standardized, so you must try on clothes every single time even if you think you know your sizes. This is annoying enough as a man, but it's hell on earth for women.

Likewise, shopping alone is bad enough. It's worse when bringing along a spouse, since you can't simply plan an execute a shopping trip the way Seal Team Six went about whacking Osama Bin Laden. Never mind getting in, going directly to the objective, and getting the hell out as fast as you can. No, every trip to the mall must be a magical mystery tour in case there's something new that you haven't seen before.

Worst of all is a shopping trip with your children—especially between mid-October and Christmas. No wonder the birth rate is so low in this country. Who the hell wants to have kids when you must take them shopping with you, and deal with them catching the mommylookits before they've learned to speak in complete sentences?

Burn the Mother Down #

Because retail shopping is so unpleasant, it's only to be expected that people with money to spare would rather shop online. It's usually more convenient, much faster as long as you can afford to wait to receive your purchase, and often cheaper.

The only thing wrong with online shopping in the US is that, like so many industries, the online retail sector is dominated by a few major players. The biggest of these is Amazon, but the internet hasn't been friendly to small operators since 2001 or so. You can blame public policy, or the lack thereof, for that.

Regardless, I see no reason why the continued existence of brick and mortar retail should be encouraged, let alone tolerated. Keeping people employed is insufficient justification; the jobs are too unpleasant and poorly paid to be worth preserving, though the same could be said of most jobs in the US.

I certainly have no intention of going shopping when I can buy online just to keep people employed. I'm not that altruistic or masochistic.