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How the “Retail Meltdown of 2017” Has Flipped the Script, Changed RECon Strategy

Lyneir Richardson, executive director of Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers University Lyneir Richardson, executive director of Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers University

LAS VEGAS—For the 13th year in a row, Lyneir Richardson, executive director of Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers University, will be attending the upcoming ICSC RECon conference here in Las Vegas. He is looking forward to visiting Las Vegas, reconnecting with old colleagues and friends, and meeting new players in the industry at the many cocktail receptions that will be taking place throughout the four day event. In terms of his schedule, though, he tells GlobeSt.com in the exclusive commentary below that he will be navigating this year’s show quite differently from the way that he has done it over the past eight years.

The commentary below are Richardson’s own. Along with his work at CUEED, Richardson is also the CEO of Chicago Trend, a social enterprise that catalyzes retail development in an effort to strengthen urban neighborhoods.  Chicago Trend is the recipient of $7 million of funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust.

Rather than having a transactional mindset and packing my schedule with back-to-back meetings, I’ll approach the 2017 show in the same way that I approached the 2009 RECon during the Great Recession.

Back then, I was there for education and revelation:  I went to the RECon plenary sessions, seminar sessions, and breakfast roundtable discussions to try and make sense of the new, unstable, and strange world that we were facing.  This year too, I want listen to and learn from experts and outsiders so I can understand what the heck is happening out there.  The insights that I gain will help me to formulate my thoughts about what the future will be, and where I will place my bets.

The reason for the shift in my POV is the current shaky state of American retail.  To say that the robust shopping industry that so many of us fell in love is under siege is an understatement.  Previously mighty retailers are now wounded and feeble. Invulnerable malls that were once vibrant gathering places now need not just a face lift, but also dental implants, hip replacement surgery, and meds for their identity crisis, paralyzing insecurity, and debilitating panic attacks.

To get a sense of the full impact of what’s going on, I highly recommend the excellent article “What in the World Is Causing the Retail Meltdown of 2017?” by Derek Thompson, a senior editor and economics writer at The Atlantic.  Here are four takeaways from the story that truly rocked my world:

A. People are spending less of their disposable income on “stuff” like designer clothes and household goods and more on travel and meals at nice restaurants. As proof of this point, businesses in the hospitality and food/beverage categories are achieving record revenue and profits.

B. To quote Mr. Thompson, “In 2016, for the first time ever, Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.”  For years, I and others who are involved in urban neighborhood retail development have been shining the light on the challenge of “food deserts” – specifically, urban areas that don’t have large grocery stores.  Recently, giants such as Whole Foods, ShopRite, Jewel, and Kroger have filled this void by opening stores in urban neighborhoods.  While I applaud this development, it now appears that a leasing goal should also be to attract healthy, good quality eateries to these neighborhoods.

C. Tying in with point A above, Thompson’s article presents how social media is influencing consumer buying patterns in a way that I’ve never read before.  I’ve had glimpses of what Thompson was talking about when my family and I have dined out.  As soon as our orders arrive at the table, we have to pause for a moment:  not for prayer, but to take cell phone photos. Before we can touch our food, my wife and daughter take pictures of their dishes and post them to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. This curious phenomenon doesn’t just take place at our table – a quick look around reveals that it’s happening at tables throughout the restaurant.  In other words, spending more on dining – as well as traveling and other experiences – seems to be required in order for American consumers to fill their insatiable social media content pipelines.

D. Finally, while Amazon has been happily eating the lunch of brick and mortar retailers (as well as the lunches of the property owners/investors that lease space to them), the problems don’t just stop there.  Driverless cars – which would allow for the same day delivery of goods to consumers from online retailers – present a nightmare scenario that needs to be taken seriously, and seriously addressed.

Given these sobering realities, I’ll be dialing back – WAY back – my networking schedule at ICSC RECon ‘17.  Instead, I’ll be all ears, taking copious notes, and seeking answers to the complex questions that face our industry at this year’s event.

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