By Martha Rosenberg
Brick and mortar stores and shopping malls hit the trifecta in 2020. Internet competition, Covid-19 and looting caused by social unrest. In Chicago, affluent shopping areas remain boarded up while Amazon delivery trucks float down deserted residential streets - stopping at almost every home. Think about that.
But even before the retail trifecta, a new, retail climate was detectable - "No" signs began appearing on store doors: No Food, No Drinks, No Strollers, No Change, No Public Restroom, No Soliciting, No Bills Over $20, (during Covid: No Cash), No Pets. Stores that catered to students added No Backpacks, No More Than 3 Students At a Time and No Leaning On The Counter to the No list.
Of course, during the pandemic, No Entry Without a Mask was been added.
Another concern also generates signs in stores, one seen before Covid - "shrinking inventory." Theft is why signs outside fitting rooms read Only Three Garments Allowed at One Time and are underscored by a Video Surveillance In Use sign. Years ago, most stores installed retail theft technology like alarms and some made customers check bags over a certain size before shopping. Not that the customers weren't trusted or anything.
During the golden age of American retail, employees greeted and beseeched customers like old friends and not just because they were on commission - it was the retail culture. In malls and department stores, perfume hostesses and makeup artists waved at women who might want a makeover or need one.
Warm lights bathed the wares and music played. America's congenial retail climate was so forward, a woman from Europe who was used to cold, disinterested shopkeepers reportedly ran out of a store screaming when she hit the "Hello! We're Glad You're Here; How May We Help You?" wall.
But something happened. On the one side, discounters like Target and Walmart took market share from full-service stores and the Internet took customers on the other. Compared to employees, cyber shopping carts cost nothing at all and they sent thank you emails to customers with a package's itinerary and expected delivery.
Cut backs began. Just like restaurants convinced diners to bus their own table, some stores convinced customers to check out their own purchases. The self- checkouts also assisted in inventory shrinkage, admonishing customers to "please remove the un-scanned item" from a bag when they registered irregularities.
Soon, cost cutting managers made employees answer the store's phone from headsets (did the help-wanted ads cite a "fast-paced environment"?) and wear advertising badges on their smocks that read "Tube Sock Clearance" or "Preparation H on sale."
But the austere cutbacks created a problem for store management: how to make customers feel valued without spending money? Enter "loyalty" programs that rebate or kick back some item or perk when the customer has spent a lot more than the cost of the item or perk.
The programs were no different from bank programs that offer reductions on jewelry and leather goods or rental cars and hotel stays when the customer has spent more on credit card interest than the reductions would cost. Does anyone fall for this?
As employees were cut back and customers waited for longer periods of time, loyalty programs became even more insulting. Customers waited for 14 minutes at check out only to be shaken down about the store's "valued customer rewards" program by ad-wearing employees.
The plastic Covid sneeze guard between the masked customer and employee did not help the warm exchanges in brick-and-mortar stores.
Will brick and mortar shopping bounce back to where it was before the pandemic? Possibly, but it may not bounce back to the time when signs proclaiming No Food, No Drinks, No Strollers, No Change and No Public Restroom did not adorn stores' doors.