Indie Retail: Authentic, experiential, rewarding

Peter Rose
– Riverview Register

The retail sector of the stock market is being buffeted lately by some pretty serious hits.

Big players are reporting numbers that cause the stock market to go all aflutter, with investors bailing while the bailing is good.  

From the 1980s onward, the supply lines for apparel in particular were exploded far beyond the capacity of America to absorb, and the result is what we are now calling the retail apocalypse. It’s funny.

In virtually all cases, the “brilliant” plan behind most every IPO in apparel retail is to achieve economies of scale by reducing costs, predominantly through the reduction of cost redundancies (read: personnel).  

So that in an era where differentiation between options to buy is marked by how rewarding the experience is, big operations reduce staff to minimal, regarding these people as disposable, nearly worthless and highly replaceable peons.

Remember that the failures mean the over-supply is coming into line. The tsunami of sameness is mercifully being reduced. It may sound harsh, and all about the sour grapes aspect of how this applies to my businesses, but I really am detached and analytical about this.

Do we bemoan the loss of places that are so generic and poorly run?

The point is that independent is the real deal, the authentic version in a sea of ripoff artists. With very few exceptions, nationals take cool, local ideas and try to mass produce them, destroying the authenticity and that hard to define “cool” factor.

J.L. Hudson used to be renowned for impeccable service. That flagship store in Detroit was a symbol of Detroit itself. Customers were fawned over, pampered – loved.  Now, you have Macy’s, where people go to get mass-produced products produced to be sold at a discount at one fictitious sale after another. There is nothing about Macy’s that adds value to the American retail landscape and that “nothing” is far from cool.

Hudson’s was a competitor of my stores. But we admired them and valued their enhancement of the apparel industry that was all about “special.” I miss that company. 

The company that replaced them and “special” stores like them, big and small, all over America, has foisted upon us all an astounding level of obnoxious sameness with zero service, selling cookie cutter, so-called licensed name branded products.

I’ve told the story before, so I won’t repeat it verbatim. But I miss what has been lost, and I believe that my mission is to do my best to replicate that experiential retail.

The retailers like us that survived the “indie retail apocalypse” of the 80s and 90s are not going anywhere soon. Independent bookstores are on the rise again, after the proliferation of the raging craze of the mega-book store, and then worse: Amazon. 

Look, too, at the surge of solid and singularly unique – and independent – restaurants Downriver. The Applebee’s and TGIFs and Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters of the world are being pushed back – hard. Smarter people are seeking out authenticity.

The retail pundits are all lecturing the national chains, all telling these parasitic invaders to up their game if they want to compete against the new realities of Amazon in particular.

The truth is that national chains have thin margins that would be eliminated altogether with more employees that could raise the experience bar. No chance of it happening.

My industry used to be populated by thousands more independent businesses, providing decent careers to millions of employees nationwide that provided a level of service that we all miss, selling a more unique range of higher quality merchandise.

The owners that comprised that industry were better off than they may be today, but few were multi-millionaires.

There were no Terry Lundgrens of the world, who achieved a net worth of $86 million because he eliminated thousands of jobs, so that Macy’s stockholders could get a better return, all to leave America with a pathetic substitute for what once was.

Lower quality, worse selection, underpaid associates, no service.  It’s stupid, and stupid to enable it, don’t you think?

We’re still here. We were not put out of business by the assault on independent.  So many were. It is not me I defend here. This is not a defense at all, as a matter of fact. I’m here to advocate for the elimination of parasites on local communities, which, by nature, by definition, have to siphon as much capital out of every region they infest, while lowering the standard of service and product sold. We deserve better. 

We all deserve local and independent. Seek it out, wherever you go. You don’t go to Sedona to eat at Outback, and the same rules apply to other niches that provide unique products with more engagement, passion and authority.  Each local decision you make pushes back the encroaching bilge, everywhere.