One of the more obvious reasons retail is dying


Wall Street analysts and the media covering them have often bloviated about the lamentable end of retail, the death of department stores, the changing fickle habits of Millennials, the power of online retail, and the tragedy of an America left behind.

Well, maybe the problem is simpler than all that.  Just a good photo spread of what these places look like tells quite a bit of the real story.

Seriously, Millennial or not, would you want to shop in a dump like this Kmart?  Or this Sears?

A photo blogger from The Street, Lindsay Rittenhouse, put a group of photos together, billing it as a Millennial's fresh-eye view, since she hadn't visited these places before she took the photos.  Her fresh eyes on the problem are a kick in the pants these places need.

I, likely because I'm a millennial, had never been to a Sears Holdings Corp.-owned (SHLD) Kmart before. Until today.

On Monday, July 3, I took a trip to a Kmart store in Brick, N.J., and I was amazed, for several reasons, that its doors were still open.

The store was dingy, dirty and disorganized, far worse than the Sears store I recently visited that I thought was a horror show. Plus, the location was poorly stocked, despite the fact that I arrived around 9 a.m., only one hour after it opened.

But, Monday's trip gave me yet another insight into why its parent, Sears, is closing an additional 20 stores on top of the 245 locations, across both Sears and Kmart banners, it already planned to shutter. And why it has failed to turn a profit in 29 out of the last 37 quarters and seen same-store sales decline in 11 of the past 12 quarters.

Sure, maybe she found only a couple of outliers, living up to New Jersey's run-down reputation near the tunnels as compared to New York.  But there's reason to think it's pretty widespread.  The Kmart and Sears retail establishments I have seen in Los Angeles, San Diego, and even New York City (when they had them) looked pretty much the same.  It's the detail in the pictures that makes them worth looking at for their unappealing quality – not just to Millennials, but actually, to everyone.  She describes the woman at Sears desperately trying to get a refund amid an ocean of employee ignorance and red tape.  She photographs the bleach products stored near the refrigerated food.  The empty store shelves.  The toys piled down in shambles.  The fast-food garbage interspacing the clothing products.  The empty shelves, the overcrowded racks, the warehouse boxes invading the shopping space.  The dirty, dingy, run-down computers and store fixtures.  The mannequin heap in the middle of the prime retail shopping space.

Who'd want to shop there?  Do the people responsible for this have any pride?  Is morale so low that they seek to kill their company?  How hard would it be to move the warehouse boxes, put the toys in a bin, or clean the filthy refrigerator?  They aren't unioned up at the retail level – just at three distribution centers and a Teamsters outfit – so that could have something to do with the empty shelves. 

But there is no excuse for the filth and dishevelment of the actual retail space, which is the face of the company to its customer.  Those places need to be clean and appealing, and it doesn't take special McKinsey consultants to advise that.  Whole Foods doesn't permit it, Target tries not to and usually succeeds, Sprouts never has such disgusting displays, you don't see this awful disorder in Big Box Costco, and even Macy's is improving its act (and several of its establishments did look pretty bad a couple years ago).  The employees apparently just have no pride.

Perhaps it's different in the Midwest.  But I'll be surprised if it is, having already seen the pattern on the coasts.  The other thing is, speaking as a customer, why would I want to go into such places to find one good one, having seen what I have seen? 

As Thomas Lifson has pointed out, it takes a lot of time and ruin to bring down a grand old American corporation.  To me, it looks like corporate suicide.  It may well be that it's far less than fickle consumers who did this to these establishments – in reality, these companies did it to themselves.

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