For those living under Chinese rule of law and inclined to matricide, patricide or simply high treason, their luck in sentencing matters took a decided turn for the better in 1905.
It was then that after 1,000 years as part of China’s penal code, Lingchi, or Death by 1,000 Cuts, was formally outlawed by the merciful order of Shen Jiaben. Consider this method of torture that eventually, emphasize that eventuality, leads to death, to be as far as opposite as can be from a mercifully speedy beheading by razor sharp sword. The good news, for history’s more squeamish voyeurs, is that we mere mortals can only endure so much pain and terror — the 1,000 cuts was probably an egregious exaggeration. Though accounts vary, in most cases, all that was required were a few well-placed, satisfyingly deep cuts and the condemned lost consciousness, missing the worst of their own cuttingly meted misfortunes.
As with many things throughout history, it would seem that necessity is indeed the mother of invention, even in matters of torture. In the case of Lingchi, we can thank dear old Confucius and some of his closely held ideals as they related to filial piety and the form of punishment deserved, if not fully observed. If you respect mom and dad, and your elders in general, you demand of yourself the highest standards. If however, you fail these most sacred of duties, you could not reasonably expect to arrive whole, as in intact, to your spiritual life, hence Lingchi.
As for being intact, after a messy holiday shopping season, some investors have begun to question how the physical retail body will survive Jeff Bezos’ answer to Death by 1,000 Cuts. The poster child for a slow death in retailing, Sears, kicked off 2017 with the announcement that it would close an additional 150 stores, bringing to 200 the total for the current fiscal year. That’s on top of the 78 shuttered last year and the more than 200 in 2015. By April of this year, the once-quintessential retailer will have fewer than 1,500 stores left standing, down from 2011, when it had more than 3,500.
Six years ago, it appeared that Sears might be the only icon to give new meaning to, “Anchors Away!” The reality today is that Sears has been joined by more than a handful of other names we once thought impermeable to the scourge of E-Commerce.
You would agree it’s been a rough go of it for bricks and mortar. Circuit City started things off a decade ago and was followed by Linens & Things, Blockbuster, Borders, and more recently, Radio Shack and Sports Authority. As is the case with the most recent fallen name, The Limited, many of these once-household names were invaded by private equity kingpins and saddled with untenable debt loads.
Outright bankruptcies, nonetheless, are not where the pain is most acute. That preserve is on reserve for a different kind of demise, an appreciably slower descent into irrelevance. At first, the disruptive power of E-Commerce appeared to apply only to things that could be read or viewed on a screen. More recently, though, any product that’s quantifiable at any level is fair game whether it be Jimmy Choo’s, a trip to Katmandu or Vintage Scooby Doo. Hence the frantic game of catch-up so many retailers are playing to raise their online visibility. The problem is catch-up can be costly. Just ask any retailer closing stores, one not-quite-lethal cut at a time, and they’ll set you straight.
On the other hand, as we well know, many nasty storms proffer a silver lining. Surely all of this capacity coming out of the standing retail universe invites opportunity in some form? Sorry to report this to all those investors looking to capitalize on bargain basement retailers, you can consider yourself warned. Not only is private equity sufficiently burned to steer clear of the sector, E-Commerce sales are not nearly as modest as what’s being reported. Wait a minute – “Modest??”
A brilliant, albeit perfectly private, analyst recently deconstructed the retail sales data, carving out auto, food and beverage and gasoline sales from the pool to arrive at what he calls Relevant Internetable Sales, or RIS. Of the roughly $1.2 trillion in annual retail sales, half can be classified as RIS, or the ‘fair game’ referenced above.
Don’t want to lose you here and shouldn’t even be running the risk as this is simple math. E-Commerce sales represent just north of eight percent of the total retail sales pie. Those are the figures you read about month in and month out. Narrow it down to the RIS half of the total retail sales pie, and lo and behold, E-Commerce’s market share rises to 15 percent of the halved pie.
In the event you think yours truly has fallen into an intellectual ditch, promise there IS a point forthcoming. If you examine the growth of RIS sales back to when the economy technically exited recession, in mid-2009, a distinct pattern emerges. The growth in E-Commerce Sales came out of the gate at a run rate of roughly a third of that of RIS sales. Flash forward to today and the growth rate of E-Commerce sales is half that of RIS sales and poised to soon overcome that of RIS’ sales growth. Looked at slightly differently, the growth rate of E-Commerce sales has risen to 15 percent year-over-year while that of RIS has meandered at a third of that rate.
The click, in other words, is in full cannibalization mode and intent on razing a mall near you in the near future.
It would be easy enough to trail off onto a tangent and begin debating how many warehouse jobs will be created even as traditional retail jobs disappear by the tens of thousands. Amazon, after all, just announced it would be creating 100,000 jobs in the next 18 months. (No, Virginia, a lifer retail sales associate cannot miraculously morph into a warehouse workhorse. But let’s not go there.)
Instead, let’s delve into the driving force behind E-Commerce eating into established emporiums’ empires. A gaggle of researchers from Harvard, Stanford and the University of California recently released the findings of a study that delved into the lifetime earnings capacity of different generations of Americans dating back to those born in 1940, one in the same with those who hit 30 in 1970. They then compared subsequent generations born 10 years hence – 1950, 1960, and 1970 – all the way through those born in 1980.
What, pray tell, did the fine professors find? In a nutshell, the impetus behind the exodus.
A neat 92 percent of those born in 1940 made more than their parents did, defining the American Dream, baseball and apple pie. Leap ahead to the baby class of 1980, though, and the legions of leap frogs dwindles to 50 percent. Do you recall that thing about necessity and motherhood and invention? What if, just say, Bezos was such a visionary he foresaw demographics and an atrophying economy necessitating the disruptive forces that manifested themselves in the form of E-Commerce and his brainchild Amazon?
OK – maybe that’s a stretch, even for me.
But Bezos, born in 1964, has been able to connect a dot or two since founding a company that back in the day committed the comparatively cordial sin of putting book stores out of business. That toll was tentative and tame compared to the devastating damage being exacted on countless contemporary chains today.
The fact is, pricing power is dead, having been tortured into extinction. Yes, yes….hallucinogenic harried housewives who’ve convinced themselves they’re busy could well give Alexa a run for their husbands’ money, barking out orders for everything from 52 Weeks of Flowers a Year to 50 Shades of Grey’s sequel’s sequel’s sequel (seriously?).
For the rest of us slaves to Amazon Prime, it could come down to affordability, or the lack thereof. Plan on the punditry assuring you in the months to come that the growth in credit card spending is as clear a vote of confidence in the country’s future as any out there. Consumers aren’t telling you they’re optimistic, they’re showing you, by golly!
While it’s true, that the plastic in peoples’ wallets has caught fire, the incendiary indulging has yet to catch up with still-inadequate income growth. The latest figures from November, lamentably reported with a lag, tell us that inflation-adjusted credit card spending is outpacing that of inflation-adjusted wage growth by 2.8 percentage points, the widest margin of the current expansion, and discernibly greater than October’s gap of 1.7 percentage points.
You tell me – are the rest of us confident or desperate to make ends meet?
Better yet, how much better or worse off will the collective ‘we’ be when tens of thousands of sales associates are shoved out of the workforce? These working folks are some of the last of the non-college-educated souls toiling away in our midst, grinding out honest livings. As things stand, the pay gap between degree holders and those who weren’t fortunate enough to study after high school is at its widest point on record. Wherever exactly do we go from here?
Few care to admit that most of the malls in America will disappear in the decade to come. For far too many, retail executives included, it’s a simple matter of not being capable of letting go of the past, which is understandable. Nevertheless, and as much as we’d like to believe differently, economic and demographic realities, and let’s face it, cultural shifts in shopping behavior, beg to differ. We do, though, have a choice: we can begrudgingly acquiesce into acceptance, by way of 1,000 blood-curdling cuts, or move on to what will be the next generation of retailing in America, as unrecognizable as she may be.
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