“Old” is the New “New”


Big-box stores have dominated the retail landscape for decades and until recently were considered “anchors” that bring shoppers into malls.

Now? Not so much.

Instead, stores that focus on providing experiences are much better placed to succeed with modern consumers. This is all part of a trend towards an older era of retailing that has been gaining steam in parallel to Amazon’s growing clout.

Don’t believe me? Here are four signs that old is the new “new” in retailing:

  • Analog is all the rage: Moleskine notebooks, Polaroid cameras and independent bookstores are all making a comeback. In 2015 vinyl records even reached their highest level of sales in 25 years. According to David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog, this interest in analog isn’t just the result of nostalgia or a passing fad but arises from the physically focused experience that analog provides and humans crave. As Millennials and Gen Zers come into their own, they are rediscovering analog as a fascinating new technology that they haven’t experienced before. For them, digital technology is old news and analog is cutting edge.

  • Demand for handcrafted items is on the rise: Blacksmiths, jewelry makers, hatters, etc., are all finding their skills increasingly in demand. Retailers such as Macy’s and Nordstrom are now relying on such “artisan” goods to add local flavor to their product selections, and online marketplaces such as Etsy, eBay and Amazon are filled with handmade goods from amateur and professional craftsmen alike.

  • Main-streets are replacing shopping centers: Twice as many retail stores have closed this year and bankruptcies far outpace last year’s rate. The biggest chains, including Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Dillard’s, and Sears, have closed 750 stores, or 20 percent of their fleets, since 2013. All this is while retail spending was actually up 4 percent during the holiday season.

One of the reasons behind the decline of these retailers is that modern consumers now go out shopping in search of experiences rather than products they can find online. As a result, large box stores are now providing a variety of experiences and entertainment that harken back to 1930s department stores and includes concerts by local bands, salons, dining areas, branded boutiques, and special members-only clubs.

  • Drop shipping is becoming increasingly important: This “endless aisle” distribution method has been gaining increasing prominence as retailers and brands attempt to streamline their operations, reduce overhead and increase access to consumers through digital storefronts.

Drop shipping has been hailed as the future of the supply chain, yet it's older than people think. In the 1870s, Montgomery Ward used a form of drop shipping to ship catalogue products straight from suppliers to distant rural consumers. At the time it was the railway that made such a distributed supply chain possible, now it’s the internet. Different technology, same result. And it amounts to another blast from the retail past.

This resurgence of “the old” does not necessarily spell the imminent demise of large retailers. Instead, it’s a wakeup call for chains such as Target and Walmart to get their acts together. Harnessing supply chains and virtual storefronts to be able to offer any product, anywhere, at any time, is not enough. Amazon already does that much better than anyone else.

Instead, brick-and-mortar retailers need to provide what Amazon lacks and customers crave: personalized human experience. It’s an idea as old as retail itself. Only this will get consumers in the door.

What happens if these large retail chains fail? Not to worry. That’ll merely open up space for more 19th century-style boutiques, French cafes and artisan blacksmiths selling their wares.

I could think of much worse futures than the past.


Jeremy Hanks is the CEO of Dsco, a drop-shipping B2B integration and data exchange platform.

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