The Decade of Retail Apocalypse

Best Buy emphasized service during the Retail Apocalypse, a major aspect of the company’s turnaround.

“Apocalypse” is a common synonym for final destruction, catastrophe, cataclysm. The term originally signified “revelation;” it is the first word in the Koine Greek of the Book of Revelation.

This blog is dedicated to marketing not exegesis, but the biblical context is relevant here. The decade just concluded, 2010-2019, has been called a time of retail apocalypse due to the collapse of stores great and small.

Traditional retailers, described as “brick-and-mortar,” have seen turmoil and ruin, per apocalypse’s frequent connotation. But “revelation,” the first meaning, is most accurate when considering retail’s transformation in the past 10 years. Customers revealed their priorities and perceptions of value. Retailers that have responded to the revelations are thriving.

Reasons for the decline in traditional retail are myriad, but chief among them:

  • The rise of e-commerce, exemplified by Amazon.
  • The rise of mobile computing, exemplified by the iPhone spawning a new means of shopping at the start of the decade.
  • The shrinking middle class, the mainstay customers of chains like Sears and JC Penney, suffering the continuing effects of the Great Recession at decade’s beginning.

The decade’s list of major retailers that closed or staggered into the 2020s to face such fate is sobering. Toys R Us, Sports Authority, Gymboree and Payless are iconic brands now vanished (various promises of online reincarnations not withstanding). Sears—the steampunk version of Amazon with its historic catalog—went bankrupt only to be repurchased by Eddie Lampert, the same person who oversaw its steep decline. Sears is on the retail deathwatch, as are Bed, Bath and Beyond, Pier 1, and Forever 21. Meanwhile, JCPenney, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and The Gap have closed hundreds of stores.

While the Retail Apocalypse seems unsparing, some retailers have received vision instead of destruction. Two examples are based here in the Twin Cities:

TARGET: Target continues to benefit from its identity established three decades ago: cheap chic. The company has reinforced this positioning with new lines of exclusive products. Additionally, Target is investing heavily in store remodeling and pickup/delivery services. Driving the changes is CEO Brian Cornell, hired in 2014 from PepsiCo, the first outsider to lead the company.

BEST BUY: In 2012, I blogged about Best Buy’s decline in terms of the Wheel of Retailing, the concept of retailers finding success by exploiting a niche, only to grow and lose focus. At the time, Best Buy was suffering from “showrooming,” customers inspecting products in brick-and-mortar stores but ordering them from e-merchants at lower prices.

Best Buy orchestrated its turnaround with a move like Target’s: hiring an outsider as CEO. Hubert Joly came from the hospitality industry, expert in creating positive guest experiences.

Best Buy’s emphasis on services has been crucial during the tenures of Joly and his successor, Corie Barry. Such offerings cannot be commoditized, countering the low-price strategies Amazon and other e-merchants have used on hardware.

I can personally speak to how effectively Best Buy markets their services. In 2017, when my wife, Anni, and I set up house in Minnesota, we shopped at Best Buy and spent as much on installation as we did on the flat screen and related gear—gladly.

Matthew 24:13 (ESV)

But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Why is it important to understand apocalypse’s distinct meanings: “revelation” and “destruction?” How does this understanding align with biblical teachings to have faith in God’s guidance and care?

Have Target and Best Buy tapped a “backlash” against e-commerce? What compels you to visit a brick-and-mortar store?

Are some retailers “beyond saving?” Is the Retail Apocalypse a necessary marketing phenomenon to prune weak or redundant companies?

Toys R Us image: Breawycker, Abandoned Toys R Us in Winston-Salem, NC, CC BY-SA 4.0

Best Buy image: Intel Free Press, Ultrabook Zone Best Buy, CC BY-SA 2.0

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