The gods of disruption strike again

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There will always be at least two ways to look at any event: Is it intrinsically good or inherently bad? Myriad people choose to look at recent retail headlines as the latter, but I’m tired of the “eve of destruction” dance.

Looking back over the first eight months of 2017 and studying STORES’ annual Hot 100 list of the fastest-growing retailers, I’m inclined to view the news as a sign that the gods of disruption are having their due — and I’m more excited by that prospect than defensive about it.

At press time, the announcement that Amazon had reached a definitive agreement to buy Whole Foods Market for just under $14 billion was unfolding. The acquisition comes at a time when e-commerce pure plays are awakening to the opportunities of physical retail; if all goes as planned, Amazon will add over 460 Whole Foods locations.

Hours later, Walmart announced that it was buying Bonobos for $310 million; about 10 days earlier Mickey Drexler stepped down as the CEO of J.Crew — news that shook the generations of retailers for whom Drexler’s “merchant prince” status seemed unrivaled.

Each was a retail-shaking event, but also rich examples of an industry that is responding to a changing consumer and ready to recast the future of shopping. Consumers are spending on services, they’re looking for experiences that will jumpstart their shopping juices, and they’re inspired by new business strategies that challenge norms and layer on a level of philanthropy.

A quick glance at the 10 fastest-growing retail business of 2016 adds fuel to the fire. Topping this year’s list is Blue Apron, a meal-kit delivery startup that launched in 2012 and achieved triple-digit growth in 2016. While some feel that the Amazon-Whole Foods deal casts a big shadow on Blue Apron’s IPO, it has carved a niche with customers looking to balance healthy eating with convenience.

Then there’s Wayfair, No. 2 this year up from No. 7 a year ago. What’s behind this company’s growth? The brand has a customer-centric culture and uses cutting-edge visual technology — things today’s shoppers hold in high regard.

Another standout: Build.com. This success story, 15 years in the making, provides a unique shopping experience for consumers and contractors alike through its network of specialized sites. Meanwhile, No. 10 Gelson’s Markets is a beacon in the full-service specialty grocery store category. Long revered by chefs, celebrities and foodies around Los Angeles, the company recently added new locations, blending the amenities it is known for with the local flavor of a neighborhood market.

Our industry is in a period of massive disruption: Stores are closing and some businesses will not survive. But consumers’ purchasing power is strong and remains a solid bet against the misplaced fear that retail is ailing.

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