It’s a New Year, but the Stories of 2009 Will Look Familiar

Out with the old, in with the new—it’s a saying normally appropriate at the start of most years, but this January kicks off a far from routine year. We can anticipate the big stories of 2009 will have the familiar ring of 2008:

1. The economy, stupid. Hands down the No. 1 retail story of the year, be it 2009 or 2008. After what is expected to be the worst holiday sales season since the Depression, January will inaugurate a three-month period that could be among the worst in retail history. There’s little fresh inventory, unemployment is going up, consumer confidence is declining. No one can predict when pocketbooks will open up again for anything more than basic necessities. Much depends on whether Barack Obama can instill some hope and true-grit determination in his first 100 days in office.

2. Food, glorious food. Though the wheels came off even for luxury-goods purveyors, there are pockets of retailing where customers continue to dig into their pocketbooks. Food stores are benefiting from more meals at home. Especially benefiting are deep-discount stores, such as Aldi, which opened in Florida and has a major expansion planned for Texas. Expansion still is the order of the day for smaller-format stores. Kicked off by Tesco’s Fresh & Easy invasion, retailers as diverse as Safeway, Wal-Mart, Price Chopper and Giant Eagle have developed their own small-store formats. On a negative note, organic food sales, with their higher price points, appear to have withdrawn back to their niche customer base. And the value of a $4 Starbuck’s experience has been put into question by many a grande latte drinker.

3. If we build it, will they come? New stores and shopping centers are still being built, though the pace of construction has ratcheted down, perhaps never again to reach the tempo of recent years. Yet, there are pockets of growth, as evidenced by this month’s cover story on 40 growth companies with 40 or fewer stores (click here). While it can be argued that in many areas we were over-stored, it can equally be argued that in many others there were too few retail options. What cannot be argued is the need for a loosening of the credit market so developers and retailers can build new projects.

4. Can “green” retailing be sustained? The economic downturn will truly test the mettle of corporate executives. Will they support sustainable building and operations practices or revert back to less expensive solutions? Consumers are cutting back on organic purchases. But as editor Marianne Wilson points out (click here), we’re at a tipping point in sustainability spending.

5. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Can you put the cat back in the bag? In other words, after promoting, promoting, promoting, can retailers ever hope to get customers to buy at full price?

6. How many more venerable retail nameplates will succumb this year? The changes in bankruptcy law give retailers less flexibility to emerge successfully from bankruptcy (click here). Even before those changes, the record of companies forced to file for Chapter 11 protection was not good. Most often, companies that emerged from bankruptcy wound up seeking protection again within a few years. Now, the perfect storm of financial woes may force some of our most cherished names to close shop. I’m not about to name them publicly. They know who they are.