What Macy’s and Sears didn’t know about barbells

The American retail industry has been going through a major shift in recent years, but very recently we’re seeing increasing pressure on the Big Boxes.
In my last column, I introduced the macro-economics concept of The Barbell Effect now being created by this disruption in the retail sector. This column reveals why that macro-disruption should be good for Main Street businesses out in the micro-economy. If you missed the first column, check it out. In the meantime, here’s the gist:
The Barbell Effect occurs when entrenched, legacy practices are disrupted by forces like new technology, innovations, and shifts in demographic behavior, like when people stop going to malls. Those industry players who fail to adapt to the shift are forced to retreat into the contracting middle, the bar. Those who adapt will prosper in the bell ends, where most customers are going. Remember, the barbell doesn’t exist prior to the disruptive pressure — it’s the result, not the cause.
As the Big Boxes are being squeezed into the claustrophobic, bar-of-irrelevance, they’re closing stores faster than you can curl a two-pound free weight - by the hundreds. Their legacy model — customers walking into their stores to buy stuff — is built around a 150-year-old paradigm that’s shifting. Futurist and implications expert, Joel Barker warns, “When a paradigm shifts, everything goes back to zero.”
The energy driving this shift is the fast-evolving customer expectations, which are increasingly associated with e-commerce. Customers are finding it easier to shop for and acquire stuff online, which fits their 21st century lifestyle and saves them time. Here’s the retail barbell by the numbers: currently, online sales are just over 8% of all retail, but with a bullet of a half-point a year. Meanwhile, the legacy brick-n-mortar sector has seen 27 months of declining sales (Bloomberg).
Of course, we know who’s greasing this shift: the 1200-pound Internet gorillas like Amazon and Google, plus one more disrupter — mobile. Mobile computing wasn’t any part of our past, but with 20% of online sales and a faster bullet, it will dominate our future — as in tomorrow. You must have a mobile strategy.
In his 1982 book, Megatrends, John Naisbitt prophesied, “The more high tech we have, the more high touch we will want.” Make no mistake — this retail Barbell Effect is the fulfillment of the Naisbitt prophesy. The good news for small business is the Big Box retreat is leaving a High Touch vacuum you can fill, if you understand what’s happening on the ends of the barbell:
  1. The digital bell - for when customers seek sexy, high tech, virtual contact, while allowing Big Data manipulation and scratch-your-own-itch service;
  2. The analog bell - where customers go to satisfy their craving for that special sauce made from Main Street high touch AND slightly-less-sexy high tech. It tastes like this: “We’ll help you scratch your itch” customization; “Good to see you again, Mrs. Smith”; “Thank you for your business;” “Be sure to check out our mobile site.” “Follow us on Facebook.”
The reason it’s The Barbell Effect, and not The Lollipop Effect, is because of the primal truth that powers the analog bell: One hundred percent of customers who demand digital are themselves 100% analog. You and I, and every one of our customers are as analog as a caveman or a kumquat, which means we’ll always have analog, high touch itches. And with all the high tech leverage they can muster — 3,642 backscratcher purchase options (I checked) — Amazon can’t scratch one analog, high touch itch.
In the wake of the big retreat of the big retailers, combined with the analog limitations of the big e-tailers, that High Touch vacuum will be filled by Main Street businesses delivering their high tech/high touch special sauce. And since your small business doesn’t have to conquer the world to be successful, you don’t care if the digital bell is sexier and bigger than your part of the analog bell. The big guys need all of that to survive — you don’t.
Write this on a rock … Vacuums don’t stay vacuums for long, and there’s no room for you in the bar. Tick tock.

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