BUSINESS RECORD: For retailers, it can be a circus out there

Posted on Sep 17, 2018 in Creative Class News, MAINFRAME News

BY KENT DARR, Senior Staff Writer, Business Record
Friday, September 14, 2018 6:00 AM

A couple of weeks ago, when it was little more than a rumor that Younkers and all of the other brands under the house of Bon-Ton would be reborn out of liquidation, retail specialist Laura Rowley did some speculating on what form that retail operation might take.

Online retail was a possibility — though she was quick to point out that retail at street level has strong vital signs. What caught my attention was her suggestion that many of the large spaces left vacant by bankrupt retailers, such as Younkers, could be replaced by online operations that could have a brick-and-mortar store with room left over for storage or warehouse space.

Such a setup would allow them to close the last mile in the delivery chain. Rowley and other retail specialists — Greater Des Moines developer Richard Hurd comes immediately to mind — point out that the delivery of goods ordered online is an inefficient process. A big reason Amazon bought Whole Foods was to close that gap, she said.

A few days later, news broke that an Indiana company planned to buy the Bon-Ton operations, with most sales occurring online. Under that scenario, a brick-and-mortar presence could be a possibility.

Rowley also talked a lot during an interview prior to speaking at an event sponsored by the Greater Des Moines Partnership about experiential retail. It is important to millennials, she said, who spend so much time with their smartphones that they need to add some excitement to their lives, even if they’re just shopping for a T-shirt.

The local example that stands out is Mainframe Studios, the nonprofit operation that provides inexpensive studio space to a range of artists.

Mainframe has an open house every month that involves a community event — Rowley attended a yoga class — that leaves time for browsing the studios.

“It was really smart,” she said. “You have fitness activities and social activities and entertainment, and then you mix retail in with that.”

We expect a lot, maybe too much, out of retailers, Rowley said.

“I think it’s a big ask of retailers because retail is incredibly hard,” she said. “You have to work your supply chain just right to have your product in the right place, and now you have to be like Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.”