Picky Customer or Circling Vulture

Jen and I went to a mall on Saturday. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a mall on a Saturday afternoon. I left buying nothing and feeling extremely uninspired to shop.

I now know why Target sold Marshall Field’s last year to May Department Stores and why May Department Stores is praying to be bought by Federated.

Like advertising, commercial radio, and the airline industry, the entire department store model is broken. It’s no longer useful to customers like you and me. Every store looks exactly the same. Each store offers the same products under the same brands, in the same colors, at the same price, with the same reason offered to buy from them – none.

Perhaps, like in commercial radio, this homogeneity is a result of consolidation. That may be. I submit consolidation itself is a result of:

  1. a business unable to be successful on its own,
  2. the belief sustainable margins could be reached with enough volume.

Even if stores aren’t sharing inventory, they’re striving for blandness by stocking the few items that move at competitors and dumping the unique items – the ones that don’t sell. Leaving me, and I suspect, you, with a strong sense of blah.

As we walked through Marshall Fields (or was it Herbergers or was it J.C. Pennys?) the majority of the customer activity was in the inter-aisle sale racks. 50% off jewelry, 60% off menswear, racks and racks of stale inventory clogging up the aisles. That’s where the customers were. The full-price stuff getting no attention. The scene reminded me of my mom – doing the bulk of her furniture shopping at Going Out of Business sales.

Retail stores traditionally mark up their products 100%. That covers things like: the staff, the building, and the products that aren’t selling. Things that keep the business running, that keep the jobs in your neighborhood. If stores get the bulk of their business when they run sales (going out of business or otherwise),

    what incentive to the have to:

  • stock things worth buying not on sale?
  • differentiate themselves from their competitors?
  • stay in business?

This relationship is like that mean, yet popular high school girl telling the infatuated A/V club president, “We can be best friends as long as we never see each other.” Yes, we’re the popular high school girl and the stores are the geeky boys.

A handful of questions come to mind:

  • Is this Wal-Mart’s fault for teaching us that stores should strive to squeeze the livable-wages out of margins?
  • Is this the fault of stores like TJ Maxx where the department store’s unsold inventory lands a season later? Thereby reinforcing the ‘if you wait, the price will be lower’ lesson taught to us by the frequent sales.
  • Is this the result of a society so plush with potential options we need the threat of something being gone tomorrow to make a purchase decision?
  • One last question: If turning customers into circling vultures is the only way to make them buy, are the products worth selling?