The retail landscape is changing more quickly than ever, but all of the experts at this week’s “Retail Summit 2017” in Columbus are optimistic. Attendees say it's still a healthy industry - with room for both online and brick-and-mortar business.
The Wednesday and Thursday event at the Greater Columbus Convention Center features retail experts from around Central Ohio and the rest of the country. Sessions include discussions on the future of brick-and-mortar retail, why Columbus has evolved into a logistics hub, and what physical stores can do that Amazon can’t.
The summit comes at a pivotal time in Central Ohio retail. Like many markets around the country, the region has seen its share of big box retail closures in 2017.
In-person retail has long been one of Central Ohio's biggest industries, with retail giants like Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and The Limited all having deep roots here, although layoffs and down earnings reports have become increasingly common.
The shrinking physical retail sector comes as Amazon tries to hire 1,400 workers for an order fulfillment center in Etna, as well as tens of thousands of other workers for warehouses around the U.S.
“The biggest issue facing retail is a dramatically changing customer,” says design:retail editor-in-chief Alison Embrey Medina, who led a Wednesday presentation on “humanizing stores for a new connected customer.”
“The customer today is so much smarter than the customer of 5, 10 years ago because of the internet,” Embrey Medina says. “Shoppers today are using the internet to research before they go into stores, and vice versa. They’re going into stores to research before they purchase online."
“I think today there are so many places, to find a better places, to find a better price, that experience is where retail will sink or swim in the future," she adds.
When it comes to how those stores interact with customers, it’s hard to find a better expert than Brian Shafley. He’s the chief executive of Chute Gerdeman, a Columbus firm that helps businesses with interior design.
“They have to do more with stores,” Shafley says about retailers.
The U.S. is positioned well to cater to the in-person shopping crowd, Shafley says. In fact, it's “over-stored” compared to most of the world.
“(Shopping) is a social activity, and there’s an immediacy to shopping,” Shafley says. “Fewer people in malls means you have to do more with the people who do show up.”
Yaromir Steiner of Steiner & Associates, which designs retail developments like Easton Towne Center. says the country's over-saturated retail environment was caused by the shopping boom of the 1950s-70s.
In fact, Steiner says the biggest issue facing retail is "there’s too much of it.”
But the over-saturation is hard to notice, he says, because of what he calls “the dilution affect.” When there’s too much retail, stores still get customers - just not as many. That’s different from apartments or housing, some of which will sit completely empty when there are too many.
That's also why online-only retailers have had a leg up; Steiner says over-building poses more of a problem to physical retailers. To succeed, brick-and-mortar stores need to rethink how they compete.
“It’s impossible to out-Amazon Amazon," Shafley says.