September 13, 2019
Column | outbound

Conventional wisdom

Sometimes what we all thought to be true turns out to be wrong.

By Mitch Mac Donald

Merriam-Webster has been in the business of telling us what words and phrases mean since 1826. If you look up the term conventional wisdom, M-W tells us that it's "the generally accepted belief, opinion, judgment, or prediction about a particular matter."

But is it correct? Experience shows that conventional wisdom is often right, but not always. Sometimes it's dead wrong. In the 15th century, conventional wisdom held that the world was flat. In the early '60s, conventional wisdom—at least in the music industry—held that beat music had no future. In 1962, an executive from Decca Records turned down a chance to sign The Beatles to a recording contract, noting that "We believe guitar groups are on their way out."

And now, in 2019, we're starting to entertain doubts about another bit of conventional wisdom: that traditional retail is dead, or at least dying.

We all know that the way Americans shop has changed in the last decade. We've read about the meteoric rise of Amazon.com and the explosion of e-commerce. We've also read about the "retail apocalypse," the store closures, the retail bankruptcies, and the vacant malls that purportedly signal the death of retail as we know it.

But that narrative overlooks a few things. While it's true that retail stores closed at a record pace in 2017, it's also true that the pace slowed considerably in 2018. That's led analysts to suggest that perhaps 2017 wasn't so much the beginning of the end as the bottom of the brick-and-mortar retail trough. Going forward, they foresee a kind of Darwinian scenario playing out, in which weaker-performing stores and chains die off and the "fittest" players—those that are able to adapt to a changing world—survive and thrive.

It's already happening. Mindful of the fate that awaits those who fail to stay relevant, many retailers have adjusted their business models to reflect changing consumer preferences and expectations, revamping their stores and investing in innovative services. Those efforts are paying off. Retailers like Target, Nordstrom, and Walmart that have adapted to changing tastes continue to show strong (and growing) sales.

And that's not the only encouraging sign for brick-and-mortar stores. A recent study conducted on behalf of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) indicated that we've seriously misread the demographic trend lines and that the outlook for stores may be rosier than expected. We've long been told that a big part of brick-and-mortar's problem has been the stores' failure to attract younger buyers (who prefer to shop online), but the study showed it wasn't quite so simple. Although that may be true of millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 38), it was not the case with the generation coming up behind them: Gen Z, or the cohort of kids, teens, and young adults between the ages of seven and 22. The study showed conclusively—and unexpectedly—that Gen Zers overwhelmingly prefer in-store over online shopping.

Consider these findings from the ICSC study:

  • Three out of four Gen Zers say physical stores provide a better experience than shopping online. When asked why they prefer stores, they cite the ability to socialize, physically see items, and get those items immediately.
  • For key product categories, Gen Zers make most of their purchases in physical stores.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Gen Zers say it is important when buying online for that retailer to have a store nearby.
  • On a quarterly basis, more than nine of 10 Gen Zers make at least one trip to a shopping mall. ?

Perhaps the most interesting finding of all was the sharp break between Gen Zers and millennials with respect to shopping preferences. Millennials have famously shunned malls, and it has long been assumed Gen Zers would follow in their footsteps. This study shatters those assumptions. As is often the case, these kids just don't give a damn about the conventional wisdom.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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