Stop and heed! This isn’t just another blog story to digest in two minutes and scroll off to the next one. This is serious business: Your world is changing, and it’s changing faster than even the Internet can keep up.
We’re talking about the founding bedrock principle of Capitalism itself: buying stuff. CNN’s top story currently, about stores closing at an epic pace, is just the tip of the iceberg. The stores listed there are typical mall fixtures – Sears, JCPenny, Macy’s, Bebe, and Payless. Clark.com covers more of them, including Rue21, KMart, Abercrombie & Fitch, Guess, Wet Seal, GameStop, and Staples.
The reason why the stores are closing is of course given as the advent of online shopping. But there’s far more depth to this story that nobody’s pointing out…
A Sudden Retail Collapse Is Bad For Capitalism
When we buy from Amazon, the sales transactions are handled electronically from your bank directly depositing the cash into Amazon’s account, to the automated warehouse center where hardly any human involvement is needed to ship your package.
Meanwhile, a brick-and-mortar store employs people, who are obviously out of a job now. But it also uses store fixtures (cash registers, shelving, etc.), so the suppliers of that equipment are out of work. And finally, a vacant store building standing empty isn’t making money for whomever owns that property. So it puts a bigger dent in the economy than you might think.
With fewer spare dollars to spend, Americans impacted by a dent in retail economic stimulation decide to do without luxury items and save their money for bare necessities, so this creates a snowball effect as even more stores go out of business, in particular specialty shops that only thrive on extra expendable income for fringe goods. So the few stores left standing are big box retailers that carry everything high-volume enough to warrant stocking, but lack that quirky charm you used to find at your local antique shop or alternative boutique.
And of course, no matter what a big-box retailer sells, Amazon sells that too, so then the big-box retailers close up. The other thing about online shopping is that it’s convenient as the dickens. Online shopping gets you a greater selection, and usually cheaper prices too. Nobody is going to give it up.
America Is The Country Most Dedicated To Retail-Based Capitalism
Napoleon Bonaparte famously made the snide criticism of Great Britain as “a nation of shopkeepers,” although that’s probably an anecdote. But he might have more accurately described the United States that way.
Daily Kos collects some statistics: For one-third of Americans, a retail job is the first work experience. It’s so common that it’s a cliche in every teenager’s life. Two-thirds of US Gross Domestic Product comes from retail consumption – and be assured, when two-thirds of the GDP suddenly vanishes, you will feel it. But here’s the number that grabs you: In the United States, there exists 23.5 square feet of retail floor space per capita. The next two countries down the list of retail-square-footage per capita are Canada (16.4 sqft per capita), and Australia (11.1 sqft per capita).
Yeah, those empty, boarded-up, dark-windowed retail shells you drive by every morning to go to work? There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there? America was built with the apparent intention that we would spend every waking moment of free time standing in a store, fulfilling our desires as long as they were commercially viable. Now there’s a whole blog dedicated to dead malls, and it’s in bad need of an update.
So central to American culture are shopping centers that they even dictated our social lives. Several generations back there went through a phase of being “mall rats,” as malls became the one-stop place to hang out with friends while you watched movies at the Superplex, played a few games in the arcade, grabbed lunch at the food court, and giggled at the silly items in Hot Topic. Netflix replaced theaters, XBox replaced arcades, Amazon is replacing retail, and teens now socialize on Facebook. We still eat, so the food industry has at least a breather before Apple produces the iFood pill next year.
Science fiction author Larry Niven once wrote a short story called Cloak of Anarchy, in which the invention of the teleporter made millions of miles of American freeway and highway obsolete – so they sod the thing over and convert it into a giant public park.
We now have to apply that thinking to a different problem: What to do with all the unused retail space? The North American landscape is covered with huge, bloated, empty buildings surrounded by seas of black asphalt parking lots. These parking lots are slathered in oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid – all the stuff that leaks out of cars – which creates an environmental hazard. The bare asphalt and concrete jungle worsens global warming by absorbing heat and, of course, choking out vegetation. And on top of that is the problem of urban decay, as abandoned stores join abandoned factories and abandoned houses from housing bubbles, creating one vast ghost town. Property values plummet, as if they weren’t in freefall already.
Turning them into parks only works in cute science fiction stories. The actual environments are too toxic to harbor life beyond the hardy weeds poking up through the cracks already. Perhaps we will turn to genetic engineering. We’ve already engineered a bacteria that eats oil spills. If we could create a species of vine that thrives on asphalt…
But the bottom line is that a huge chunk of American life is disappearing. Driving around shopping is just going away. So will entry-level retail jobs, which means younger generations will just not be able to get that crucial first job experience. But once again, America’s founding principles are disappearing out from under it, and our poor planning and short-sighted investment are putting us in a spot we can’t recover from because we never built this country with the idea that things would change so fast.