As America regains its consumer confidence, will retailers pass a technology test they failed during the last glut?
I'm not Alan Greenspan, and I'm not Nostradamus, but allow me to straddle a line for a minute. I'd like to share some perspective from my vantage point as a retail technology publication editor who also happens to be a consumer. Up until now I've avoided doing this, as my experience as a consumer has been quite limited. But you see, I'm getting married on June 7, and over the course of the last year my fiancée has quickly ramped up my exposure to shopping malls. I am more a consumer today then at any point in my previous life, so thanks to her, I am now fully qualified to offer this perspective.
With newfound consumer experience as my guide, I will tell you that retail at the Millcreek Mall, right across the road from my Peach Street office in Erie, PA, is alive and well. I am just one of the thousands of confident consumers who spent last Friday - in all it's spring glory - wrestling with traffic on upper Peach, otherwise known as the "retail district" of our town. I did not survey store managers and there was no observation of nightly store polling statistics. There is actually nothing even remotely scientific about my hypothesis. It's based simply on a 10-light traffic jam and full parking lots at the mall and every satellite store and restaurant within a five-mile radius. This, despite the fact that we're coming off of an expensive war, despite the fact that consumers are supposedly lacking confidence, and despite the fact that fuel is pretty expensive these days, even in northwest Pennsylvania.
Who's Fault Is It, Anyway?
Back in my editorial shoes, I'm constantly bombarded with news of declining retail sales and slumps in consumer confidence. Ninety percent of said press releases contain verbiage blaming a poor economy, which is blamed on a decrease in consumer confidence, which is in turn blamed on the recent war in Iraq, or the new, yet constant threat of terrorism. In the meantime, retail tech vendors hammer me with press releases about various store operation technology solutions that cut costs out of the equation. Ninety percent of these press releases contain verbiage referring to the necessity of solutions that will "help you weather the storm in these times of economic uncertainty." (Note: that last line is to be read aloud in your best radio commercial voice.) Did you know that POS interfaces are so intuitive now, you can virtually eliminate training overhead from your checkout lanes? Take it a step further with self-checkout and some sales-floor kiosks, and you can rid your stores of cashiers and CSRs (customer service representatives) altogether.
So I'm exaggerating, but all of this gloomy news makes me wonder just what retailers were doing with their profits and how they were spending their money during the roaring 1990s. My dad is an accountant, and his dad grew up during the Great Depression. If I've learned anything about fiscal management, it's simply to make hay while the sun shines and save some for a rainy day. Maybe I'm fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of a bit of that accountant/blue-collar mentality, but it seems to me that smart guys wouldn't need to play the savings catch-up game right now. If it's taking such an outlay of cash and IT resources to get back into fiscal shape now, just how much was wasted before the bottom fell out a couple of years ago? There's no place like America to make hay while the sun shines. Neither is there any better place to wantonly spend money. As we slowly climb back to profitability in the coming years, how long before retailers get fat, sloppy, and lazy again? By the looks of traffic on Peach Street (and if my fiancée has anything to do with it) the consumer spending slump is already a thing of the past. Make fiscal responsibility a thing of the future. Of course, I suppose spending confidence has no choice but to go way, way up in preparation for a wedding. Now, if I could just warm up my feet.