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IHL ‘Debunking' Report: A Wake-Up Call – and Call to Action – for Retail

There's one debilitating behavior that every one of us has fallen victim to at some point in our lives: listening to the negative voice inside our own head. There's ample research that shows this negativity inhibits us from achieving goals and actually solving the problems that we're mulling over in the first place.

As one would imagine, when this negativity moves beyond the confines of our own mind and is seemingly everywhere – TV, newspaper headlines, your inbox, conversations – the detrimental impact can be profound.

If you're in the retail industry, you know exactly what I'm talking about: For the past year, there has been no escape from the doomsdayers, the apocalypse-propagandists and the Debbie downers. And has that rampant negativity and speculation actually accomplished anything positive?

There has been very little reprieve from the negative retail narrative … until a few weeks ago.

Our good friends and the well-known retail minds at IHL published a comprehensive report, "Debunking the Retail Apocalypse." Along with a report, they issued a press release and conducted a webinar on the same topic – using hard data to dispel sensationalist rhetoric claiming that the sky was falling in retail.

And the positive response to IHL's research has been overwhelming. More than 500 people signed up for the webinar, dozens, if not hundreds of media outlets covered the news, and perhaps most importantly, the conversation shifted to how retailers can solve real, non-hyped problems in order to capitalize on future growth.

Below I've shared what I believe are three of the most actionable insights from IHL's ‘debunking' research, and how this information can be leveraged to drive positive change within your retail business.

Right-sizing is not the retail death knell.

How many of us have the graphic of 2017 store closings burned into our minds? That graphic is a vivid reminder of retail's challenges, but it isn't a complete picture. We need to accept – even applaud – that retailers will do what it takes to create profitable, viable enterprises. And for many retailers, right-sizing their store footprint is a first-step to a healthier, sustainable model. There's no denying that the US is over-stored; consider for example, US per capita retail square footage is nearly 10x that of Germany. Once retailers have rebalanced their store portfolios, then, and only then, can there be an eye on growth. And according to IHL, growth is on the horizon.

IHL found that retailers are opening 4,080 more stores in 2017 than they are closing and plan to open over 5,500 more in 2018. Furthermore, IHL found that for every chain with a net closing of stores, 2.7 companies showed a net increase in store locations for 2017.

Customer experience at the core.

Now that IHL has set the stage for retail optimism, let's level-set. Growth isn't a guarantee. Consumers will leave your brand in the dust if you don't get the experience just right. Shoppers need a compelling reason to come into your stores. Your associates, the ambiance, your products, your seamless blending of digital and physical all need to be inviting, catering to the senses, and experiential – basically, all the things that shopping on Amazon is not. As the IHL report notes, "…consumers in America long to be entertained. Retailers and malls that take that to heart, invest in their people and their IT systems to improve their shopping experiences, will continue to not only survive, but thrive."

To help you get started on making your store a sought-after destination, check out this checklist of "Seven Things to Consider When Reinventing Your Store Experience."

You can also view this video of how Paper Source, a premier paperie and gift retailer, has reinvented its business for customer-centricity. 

Retailers must create enterprises built for rapid change.

The last decade of retail has felt like never-ending catch-up – retailers in a state of lagging behind consumer trends and expectations, frustrated that business processes and legacy systems couldn't respond fast enough to circuitous shopping journeys that are now the norm.

Fortunately, that seems to be changing, as more retailers are embracing the cloud to have a transformational impact on their business in the shortest possible time. According to IHL, 34 percent of all software spending in retail in 2017 is on cloud solutions.

Of course, cloud is just one part of the equation. Technology partners, including Aptos, are also committing to innovations that help retailers create enterprises built for rapid change. In January at NRF, Aptos will be showcasing the evolution of its Singular Commerce platform, a cloud-native, mobile-first and unified commerce services foundation that will help retailers address ‘what's next' and keep pace as the needs of consumers constantly evolve.

By focusing on what's next, the customer experience and a right-sized retail model, I am confident that the retail industry will prove the naysayers wrong.

It seems Greg Buzek, president of IHL Group, agrees.

"Without question, retail is undergoing some fundamental changes. The days of ‘build it and they will come' are over," said Buzek. "However, retailers that are focusing on the customer experience, investing in better training of associates and integrating IT systems across channels will continue to succeed."