Tough week for retail

Last weekend Sears closed up shop after 65 years of serving Canadian families coast to coast.

The last few stores the chain had in Canada after declaring bankruptcy last fall sold everything left, right down to racks and clothes hangers. Numbers aren’t easy to confirm, but somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 workers lost their jobs – and pensions earned over their working life are in jeopardy.

The closure of Sears, a store generally believed to offer quality merchandise, occurred just shy of the 10th anniversary of Eaton’s leaving the marketplace. There is some speculation amongst retail analysts Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) may face similar challenges, despite being one of the last major retailers left standing.

Whether the closures are the result of poor management, fewer in-store shoppers, higher expenses or a combination thereof, the fact is the world of retail is changing in a significant way. The question is, do shoppers, let alone government, see the risks that lie ahead?

This past Christmas even more Canadians made the conscious choice to engage with their computer, tablet or mobile device and shop online. They skipped the crowds and hassles associated with parking and made purchases. It is a trend expected to continue. Those of us who visit stores were often greeted with better prices this season, as stores fought to retain market share being lost to cheaper options often found online.

Brick and mortar stores  – physical stores where customers can actually inspect what they are buying, before paying – are a pretty rocky proposition now. Watching household brands like Eaton’s, Zellers and Sears close up, suggests it’s a risky investment that we wouldn’t blame investors for walking away from.

The costs associated with leasing space, paying taxes and improving the space to be pleasant for customers are incredible. It would seem smarter to adopt the Amazon model: massive warehouses with automated processes picking product and mailing it to customers.

We really wonder sometimes about progress and this evolution of retail. It seems to be mirroring other industries that have engaged in the race to the bottom with ever-tightening margins. It is those margins that make it possible for business owners to absorb external market forces like taxes and payroll obligations.

On Tuesday, during layout of the paper, we came across an ad for our favourite local bookstore, Roxanne’s Reflections.

Usually a note is made which ad is to run in a subject line. When the tagline read “closing sale” I marched up front to see if there was a mistake. Sadly, it was no mistake. What can easily be considered a cultural staple on the main street of Fergus is closing up shop after over 20 years in business.

Roxanne and I have been through a lot together. She doesn’t know it, or maybe she does. She will now. One of the toughest parts of employing people and knowing so many others is being there when tragedy strikes. There have been happy times too, when someone retires or a celebration is worth a quality card.

This was my go-to place.

Roxanne’s had an intimate feel not found at retailers who sell cards as a sideline.  There a person could take time without the commotion and bright lights and pick out just the right card that would mean something to the recipient. More than once a tear was shed or my eyes got a little weepy working through a selection of greetings not found at stores that might proudly offer two cards for a buck, thinking that was a fantastic selling point.

Regardless of occasion or mood, every time the visit would end with a big smile from Roxanne or one of her staff thanking me for the business and extending wishes for a great day.

From now until March customers have a chance to share some of their memories. Maybe it’s a great book that made a difference in their life or a card that made someone’s day. I hope people do.

It may have been a tough week for retail, but a rough few weeks lay ahead for Fergus as a good friend says goodbye.