Guest Post: The Inevitable Decline Of Retail

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

The Inevitable Decline of Retail

Online shopping is rippling through the economy, affecting not just retail but energy consumption and the job market.

Correspondent Marc A. responded to my recent entry Is Anybody Else Tired of Buying and Owning Stuff? (September 7, 2012) with an informed commentary on how online shopping is affecting the retail sector. The Web and online shopping is rippling through the economy, affecting not just retail but energy consumption and the job market.

Is anyone else sick of the "buying experience"? No wonder online buying has become so ubiquitous--the experience of shopping to acquire stuff is a form of torture, at least to some of us. Getting there is a nightmare (unless I can bike to the store), parking is a hassle, clerks generally don't know much, and the selection is often limited or skewed to the high end. The "fun" is in leaving empty-handed. Is Anybody Else Tired of Buying and Owning Stuff? (September 7, 2012)

Here is Marc's commentary:

"Yes, online shopping has much room for growth. Given three days the "Brown Truck Store" has an infinite breadth and depth of inventory. A good example are the $39.95 Asic Gel running shoes I'm ordering from an eBay vendor. "Free shipping". They have my size and are much cheaper than local shoe stores which are also often 'out' of my preferred size and style. I can wait four days.

And it's infinitely cheaper in terms of fuel and energy for one Brown Truck Store to deliver to 600 consumers a day than it is for these 600 consumers to sally forth in 600 vehicles to local stores that are more expensive and aren't nearly as well-stocked. Once delivery densities in neighborhoods grow large enough UPS and FedEx will add additional men to trot the packages up to doors while the truck rolls slowly down the street. They do this at Christmas time already. Soon it will be standard. But this is only an interim solution.

Once delivery density is high enough UPS & FedEx ground will do what Waste Management has already done. Waste Management compelled the use of standard green wheeled bins that can be picked up by a mechanical arm. And they fired the 50% of the labor force that was riding the back end of the truck and emptying garbage cans manually. UPS/FedEx/DHL/USPS will organize the compulsory installation of secure standard delivery bins at curbside. Then the vehicles will be fitted with chutes and computer-controlled equipment that will dispense packages into the bins. And once enough navigational aids are installed the drivers will be fired, too. We will end up with gas-electric robots rolling down the street making deliveries.

The main reason people want cars for shopping is to carry large quantities of 'stuff'. Once this task is replaced by home delivery it will become possible to massively expand public transportation. And this is more easily done than is supposed. Consider the airport style auto rental shuttle vans that carry people to and from the rental car lots. This size of van can run routes in residential neighborhoods to and from stops on the main arteries. Larger buses (which may well be electric trolleys with overhead catenaries) will run on these routes. I've just described the suburbs of the average Russian and Eastern European metropolis.

Similarly, it's unnecessary for one soccer mommy to make 14 trips a week to a grocery in her minivan or SUV. Two or three soccer mommies can make one trip a week and save huge amounts of fuel. These huge available economies and telecommuting (for those who still have office jobs) are why I don't believe in "Collapse" discontinuities even if "Peak Oil" is accurate and occurring now.

Local Shopping

I personally never got used to shopping. I hate it. But a close friend designs merchandising displays and graphics for shopping mall kiosks, "carts" and inline stores. I occasionally lend a hand fabricating and installing merchandising devices that aren't available "off-the-shelf". (Actually off the Loaded In Asia container). This has forced me to spend a great deal of time in and around malls in the last few years.

What I have observed makes me think that we're in for a long transition. Or a steady downward decline depending on your perspective and hopes.

1. The shopping malls will mainly survive at some level. Look at Simon's Malls stock price if you don't believe me. Most cities no longer have real "downtowns". And even the ones that do were generally reinvented as corporate office centers. These malls will primarily survive as women's clothing and accessories centers. Women love to physically shop for clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories and cosmetics. Caveat: increasing numbers of them just browse and subsequently order online at a discount and have UPS/FedEx deliver. It's not just Best Buy that has become a free Amazon walk-in showroom.

Other mall staples such as movie theaters, food courts, restaurants and "Something Unique For This Christmas Season" carts will survive along with this. Margins are tightening up even more. Caution! You must be a big box retailer, a corporate chain rag store or an immigrant with solid connections back in the home country (or to people buying in China) to buy product at a low enough price in container size loads. The native American owned small independent retail store is an extinct business model. You cannot buy from domestic USA wholesalers, resell and live.

Think about the stores that have already disappeared from most malls.

--- Bookstores.

--- Independent electronics retailers. That local space is broadly down to Sears, Best Buy and Walmart. Only Sears is present inside the malls.

--- Music and video stores have terminal diagnoses.

--- Small housewares. Only anchor big box retailers still handle these inside the malls. Sears, Macy's, etc.

--- Childrens clothing.

2. It's all the strip centers around the malls and located near residential neighborhoods that are in big trouble. Here we can start talking about 25% - 50% vacancy rates. Anyone holding their breath waiting for consumer retail to lead a recovery can breathe now. We are in for decades of stagnant and declining local retail/commercial real estate prices along with vanished jobs. This sector is even more overbuilt than residential housing.

--- We have already lost the store front video rental stores and travel agencies. The store front insurance agencies are following close behind. All three were killed by the Internet. Mortgage companies? Surely one jests!! (Falstaffian laughter) Branch banks are also starting to close in rising numbers. Borders, B.Daltons and Waldenbooks are in advanced decomposition. Books A Million will follow them soon enough.

--- Office Depot, Office Max and Staples are clearly on the way out. Q. What do they sell that Walmart/Sams/Amazon/eBay doesn't? A. Nothing. That front corner of copy & printing services is not enough to sustain them.

--- Target is a tough call. Despite the current high share price (due to 2% cash dividend at current price) I see Target disappearing along with its lower middle class base. Target does not sell food. Go to any Walmart Supercenter and watch. At least 75% of the customers at any moment are in the grocery or pharmacy areas. Even the people in the non-food merchandise area have lots of food items in their baskets.

--- Furniture. This business generally moved to a local showroom/regional hub n spoke delivery system over a decade ago. Ikea has been the major semi-exception. Although what Ikea has really done is extend the Sam's Club format to furniture.

I think the next move will be to robotic factories making furniture to order from standard components such as Medium Density Fiberboard, standard steel and aluminum mill shapes, glass, fabrics and other synthetic coverings. "Furniture" consumes a lot of air in transit and incurs inventory holding costs. Even disassembled furniture incurs high inventory costs due to the diversity of product designs. It's best to ship this stuff around as bulk commodity raw materials that are palletized, carried on flat bed trailers and handled by forklifts (which will begin to lose their human operators). We already know that stepper motors and computers are eliminating the profit formerly available from long distance labor arbitrage.

--- Car dealerships. A casual drive down any major retail thoroughfare will show the large and growing number of vacant car lots and abandoned showroom and service buildings.

--- Cell phone, smart phone and tablet dealers and 4G network subscriptions. Considering that Walmart handles all the major providers and hardware, this field is clearly overpopulated. Many more vacant storefronts are enroute.

--- Local appliance dealers have been in mortal danger ever since Home Depot and Lowes started selling major appliances. btw, Home Depot and Lowes both use Sears' appliance service network to do their appliance warranty and repair work. This is another reason for SHLD's seemingly magical powers of share price levitation.

--- Non-mall local retail is swiftly resolving to Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, major grocery chains and Ace/True Value Hardware stores."


Thank you, Marc, for sharing your experience and observations. Jim Quinn of The Burning Platform blog has issued an eye-opening analysis of "big-box" retail overbuilding that concludes big-box retail is overbuilt as well: Are You Seeing What I'm Seeing?

The most troubling aspect of the shift to online shopping and networked distribution directly to consumers is the destruction of jobs. I have often addressed the consequences of technology and globalization, a topic I call "the end of work." For example, Labor Day 2012: The Future of Work (September 3, 2012)

The optimistic view is that technology will create more jobs than it destroys. I see little evidence of this in the real world. Many high-tech industries that are viewed as magical engines of growth--for example, biotechnology--are limited in scope and employment. The reality is there are few "blockbuster" drugs or applications that scale up to make a lot of money. If you issue 100,000 PhDs a year in bioscience, it doesn't follow that they will all find jobs waiting for them.

Retail has long been a source of both low-skill entry-level jobs and well-paid careers. Yes, people love to browse and stroll down the mall or shopping district, and this social/novelty function will continue. But can retailers make money off of people browsing? If retail contracts, what does this do to skyhigh commercial property valuations?

The same can be asked of cubicle-farm office parks. As telecommuting and contract labor expand, the need for energy-wasting office parks and long commutes will also decline.

Technology cannot be stopped, and neither can the drive to cut costs by cutting what can be cut, labor. We can legislate certain aspects of how technology is used, and fiddle with tax incentives and trade restrictions, but we cannot make people drive somewhere to go shopping or stop the 3-D printing/fabrication revolution.

What all this calls into question is the entire financialization (debt-based)-consumerist model of "growth" and employment. Decades ago, young men were employed to pump gasoline at gas stations; these jobs all went away as self-service fueling became the norm. At least one state (Oregon, I believe) mandates that all gasoline is pumped by an employee of the station. This rule has created hundreds of jobs that are not necessary in terms of market-demand but that are certainly welcome.

Choices like this will have to be made on multiple levels.

It doesn't help labor that the U.S. sickcare system costs twice as much as our developed-economy competitors pay, and this acts as a 9% of GDP ($1.4 trillion) tax on labor. It also doesn't help that parasitic banks and cartels effectively tax our economy with their skimming.

It's all related: technology that eliminates labor, high costs resulting from cartels, fraud and crony capitalism and the follow-on consequences of those technologies.

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Flakmeister's picture

And to back this conclusion up, I present

The transcript has been annotated with graphs and tables...

Absolute top shelf....

Precious's picture

No worries.  UPS can ship an empty box just as easily as it can ship a box of frozen steaks which are sold out.

avidtango's picture

A note. "Peak oil" (or rare metals) does NOT mean using everything. Rather, it's the rising cost of extraction.  Whereas it once took 1 barrel of oil (energy) to extract 100, the figture has fallen to around 1/5, making $100 the new normal.   Easy oil is gone.  The North Sea oil (predicted to last for 100 years) peaked in early 2000 and the UK is now an importer with declining production.

Our future is not oil but solar or some other alternative.  The author is too reticent in his forecasts - nano 3-d fabricators, ultra-efficient solar, a bigger employment problem due to dying industries (manufacturing, publishing, health care & traditional factories for a start).

Western's picture

No, it's actually EROI.


Billions of fiat won't help you when all the energy you put in only extracts 10% on your ENERGY INVESTMENT.

Silver Bug's picture

Commerce is moving online. Until the government destroy that also.

sessinpo's picture

Another peak oil fanatic. I'd like to see a peak liberalism story or chart to brighten my day.

Flakmeister's picture

Was that you I saw in the reality show "Knucklewalkers of Orange County"?

Western's picture

that was pretty fuckin funny

mrktwtch2's picture

very true but what can be done to stop it ??  limit parents to 1 or sterilize the poor since they multiply like rabbits..

Vince Clortho's picture

Why not sterilize the rich?  Look how many of them turn out to be obnoxious pricks.

sessinpo's picture

Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) asks the chief Phillips (who runs the boat).


"How long as he (Mr. Clean played by Lawrence Fishbourne, a 17 year old kid) been on board?"

Chief replies: "7 months" or some number like that.

Willard replies: "I think he is specializing in busting my balls."

Chief replies: "It could be that he thinks the exact same of you."


So who is the prick and who is to decide it won't be you or your ancestors that get sterilized?


blunderdog's picture

Offer cash to the poor and tax-cuts to the rich for VOLUNTARY sterilization.

Best of both worlds!

JPM Hater001's picture

<----- My next video on doctored images of dead retail space after the collapse

<----- My next video on Snookies impact on teenage sex drive


Shopping is a dying art.  We have so much mal-investment in retail consumption space I am mulling the idea of buying these dead malls and turning them into micro-communities repleat with park, housing and some shops so you can actually live, walk and enjoy a community of like-minded people.

MDB- you can come to.  We will need a village idiot.

vortmax's picture

I shit you not, my local authorities were for a while considering converting one of our dead malls into a "Criminal Justice Center," replete with courtrooms and a jail. Only the cost of converstion killed the proposal. Welcome to the police state!

Jay Gould Esq.'s picture

Turning an Orange Julius into a detention cell. How very novel.

Ying-Yang's picture

All Hail the New Debtors' Prison...

Under the early Roman Republic, a person could pledge himself as a collateral for a loan, in a type of contract called Nexum. If he failed to pay, he was liable to become his creditor's slave. This practice was outlawed in 326 BC by the Lex Poetelia Papiria.

All Hail NEXUM contracts!

Hippocratic Oaf's picture

Whats the dif now? Anyone with mounting debt is a slave.

Anusocracy's picture

Anyone ruled by a government is a slave.

sgt_doom's picture

Jesus H. on a Harley, is this Charles Hugh Smith supposed to know anything about finance? 

Anything about economics? 

Anything about simple arithmetic???

Earth to Charley, earth to charley:

The vast majority of that 70% consumption figure derives from the uppermost 20% of the population, and many of those goods and services which enter into that 70% number are sold by the top 5 banks, who make up the majority of the GDP.

What part of fantasy-finance based economy don't you frigging understand, son?

To think there are uneducated, incompetent members of the species, ignoramus americanus, out there who still can't comprehend the arithmetic and the rather simple arithmetical relationships?

JuliaS's picture

"Nexum" must be Roman for "student loan".

MillionDollarBoner_'s picture

MDB has been sectioned.

I'm his half-wit half-brother.

How may I be of service?

JPM Hater001's picture

I'm considering gallows if you would like to reside there.

Cognitive Dissonance's picture

""Given three days the "Brown Truck Store" has an infinite breadth and depth of inventory.""

So......does this mean I never have to leave my bunker? :)

<Yes..........but will UPS deliver freedom?>

WALLST8MY8BALL's picture

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you're satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you've got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you.

francis_sawyer's picture

A sofa is an incredible investment... It's what holds all nickles & pre-1982 pennies...

krispkritter's picture

As a kid, my mother ran a house for homeless Vets. I used to check the couches in the TV lounge for coins. One day I'm taking some snacks to them in the lounge and I see a couple of the guys 'loading' the couch with coins for me to find. They were keeping my candy habit fed...kinda wish I had all those coins now.

WALLST8MY8BALL's picture

YES - I am Jack's smirking revenge!

moneymutt's picture

I just had a garge sale...I never, ever want to buy anything again, but I do want a sofa in front of my fireplace.

Things do take over...

MillionDollarBoner_'s picture

And the first rule of fight club is...

ZeroAvatar's picture

Paint a smiley-face on the Eccles building?

frenzic's picture

I buy all that crap once, in a thriftstore. Solid oak for zilch. It takes a lot of cleaning and it sure as hell is not "modern" but I don't give a shit. I pay cash, no trail and no fucking bank involved. I am not giving them any business if I can help it. Thing is I don't give out signals to produce more crap. When I got this place there were drapes and stuff. They are fine. Who cares. I got better things to do.

RockyRacoon's picture

You obviously don't have a "significunt other" who hasn't yet seen the big picture.

...and, no, that's not a typo.

frenzic's picture

The big picture is consumption is killing us and enslaving us. My girl is young enough to still live with her parents who as luck would have it have a similar lifestyle (born out of necessity though). Works out great. One day she'll turn into that cunt and that will be the day she's out. I don't let women rule me. Fuck it I don't even like women, girls on the other hand... Check my profile.

frenzic's picture

Haters gonna hate. Juicy is goood.

falak pema's picture

the inevitable decline of :

suburbia living, energy effect and infrastructure needs.

Brick and mortar economy, as jobs don't come back except in "government" or "subsidised" sectors. 

Retail chains as both ends polarise and middle income implodes. 

Transcontinental entrepreneurial transport; only the mulitnationals can afford hi-oil prices

small business enterprises; except in NEt society niche.

What will grow ::

Local economy models

Net oriented industry and services with 3D printing exploding

Alternative energy economy once the fossil spike arrives and we go down the experience curve in alternates. In 5 to 10 years time.

Social services economy, as protected and subsidised. 

Porn and sex industry, as individual single home living will increase; as will young and idle.

WALLST8MY8BALL's picture





Sometimes feel I'm running around
When I'm running around
Running around
Round round round
Sometimes I feel lost when I'm found
Yes I'm lost when I'm found
Head in the ground
People feel so free when they're bound
To the circular pound
After circular pound
Wow, wow, wow
I believe in death after life
Yes in death after life
Switch off the light
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Sometimes I get lost in the mall
Well I'm feeling so small
No longer tall
Uh, uh, uh
Insignificant and in thrall
Of the force of it all
Back to the wall
Bang, bang, bang!
Shit hole made to look underground
Where I'm buying my round
Oh, oh, oh
Spending all my time buying stuff
When I've more than enough
More than enough
Cough, cough
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer
Neo consumer

Duke of Con Dao's picture

that Romney camp is full of dumb jackasses... his team called the Dream Team by Brooks of the Times back in Jan. 2012

doesn't look so dreamy now... 

the minute I heard Obama's 'You didn't build that' speech I had a mash-up out the door within 24 hours....

YouTube - "Howard Roark, You Didn't Build That!" says President Obama


nothing against Bonzai but this is much harder to do compared to a Photoshop 45 minute whack-up!

Duke of Con Dao's picture

of course my favorite remains: YouTube - 'Nazi Party? Adolf Hitler... You Didn't Build That!' sez President Obama 


ok, it makes fun of that fat fuck Karl Rove and that other fat fuck Limbaugh and let's old Adolf have it... but

you can't say its not inspired.... el Dukerino

AnAnonymous's picture

The native American owned small independent retail store is an extinct business model.


Who's that? The Native Americans have been declining due to 'american' imperium.

Funnily enough, the descendent of an well connected immigrant cannot keep them if she wants to be a native 'american'.

pods's picture

I hate shopping because I am starting to hate people on the whole. Slovenly beasts all around me.  WTF?

And Amazon will quickly let me know if the model of drill or whatever has been Walmarted.
(Walmarted means to underbuild the product to the max so that it can barely squeak by the most lenient of QC controls.)

I got so sick and tired of buying single use crap that I now research and buy only top end shit that will last, ie Vitamix.

This is not limited to Walmart either.  

Got a rock solid garbage disposal online for like $50 bucks. Made in the USA and will not have a leaky seal in a year like the garbage at HD or Lowes, unless you spend $500 on one.


Ying-Yang's picture

pods you are correct.

We all need to buy local and solid quality where possible. Screw China, Walmart and while I am at it, all those global corporations.

Nobody For President's picture

I'm with you YY, but out in the boonies, it can be hard. The two local Ace hardwares (good stores and good owners both) have cheap shit, made in you know where bolts, nuts and screws. Bought a half-dozen 5/16th by 5" lag bolts for a hardwood bench I was building, broke two of them while tourquing down moderately - not a real arm-busting tourque. Had to go to a bigger town and custom hardware store to get real shit made in the US bolts with real steel in them.

Like pods, I too only buy really good tools, after years of buying cheap or mid-range stuff that broke, burnt out, or didn't do the job well, and my life is a lot better for it. Now, if I could only find a really good keyboard...

Ying-Yang's picture

Try talking to the Ace manager.. tell him you would buy more if he did not have crap. I have found this works locally. His salary depends on return customers. Local people will listen. Big corporations could care less.

I only kill chickens and wheat's picture

If you're looking for a good keyboard check They bought the original buckling spring tech patent from some IBM spinoff, lexmark? I got 2 Classic 104 Black Buckling Spring USB models. Just checked the back and holy shit it says made in the USA.

blunderdog's picture

They're not quite the old steel-framed keyboards you used to get from IBM, but yep, they're as good as can currently be found.

Alternatively, you can get server-room hardware which is built better and three times the price, but you won't get the tactile effect.  Server keyboards tend to suck for extended use.

sessinpo's picture

Sounds great.


However, check the manufacturer of the products of your local retailier. Quite often you will find those same products made in China, Taiwan, South Korea.

Only difference is a higher mark up. They are business people and look for products that sell at the best profit margin, most often regardless of where it is manufactured.