Retail e-volution

By Kitty McConnell
Photos by Tim Johnson

Retail is an evolve or die business. The city’s oldest and newest retail shopping destinations are staying competitive in an industry defined by fluctuating market forces, consumer whims and rapid technological advances.

See also:
A brief history of Columbus’ shopping centers

Retailers are cashing in on mobile commerce to lure shoppers with smartphone deals. Explore a few popular apps here.

In 1999, Easton Town Center debuted phase-one of what is today a $225-million, open-air shopping development.

Selling on Amazon for as little as $8.42 is a paperback history of Lazarus department stores. Look to Lazarus: The Big Store chronicles the economic and cultural impact of the retailer, founded in downtown Columbus in 1851. Amazon customers who bought the book also bought histories of Gimbels, Rich’s, Marshall Field’s and Jacobson’s—all of the regional giants that dominated the retail industry from the window-shopping days of the early 20th century through the shopping mall boom.

The past three decades have seen those once-mighty department store retailers (and the shopping malls they anchored) succumb to corporate consolidation, recessions and the rise of e-commerce.

The one-room men’s clothing store that Simon Lazarus and sons grew into a major retail anchor of the booming mid-century shopping mall industry was absorbed by Macy’s, a division of parent company Federated (now Macy’s Inc.). Online, former Columbus customers still share their memories of eating in the flagship store’s restaurants, visiting Santa or buying that special something. Not only was the Downtown Lazarus the place to make a purchase, it was a social experience.

Walking into a Macy’s is an entirely different experience today—if you even spend time shopping in the brick-and-mortar store at all.  By the end of 2014, Macy’s expects all of its 840 stores to be fulfilling online orders. These click-and-pickup sales are one of many strategies that traditional retailers are using to stay alive in the digital age.

“Historically, we relied on the department stores to put an ad in the newspaper. We now rely on Express or lululemon or Apple or someone like that to push people into the mall through their digital marketing and their digital efforts,” says Michael Glimcher, chairman and CEO of Glimcher Realty Trust. Glimcher owns and operates Polaris Fashion Place, along with 27 other regional shopping centers across the country.

Brick-and-mortar retail sales have taken a big hit from online vendors, particularly Amazon; but Glimcher rejects the popular notion that the shopping mall is dead. The malls in the Glimcher portfolio are enjoying all-time high sales, rents and occupancy rates, he says.

“These malls are evolving, and what you do with the mall and what you add to it is changing,” says Glimcher. “I suppose if you don’t evolve you would die.”

Retail has always been a volatile business. Local shopping-center developers and retail experts say the e-commerce revolution is simply the next phase of development in a dynamic industry. Only retailers who evolve and innovate have survived the economic forces, technological advances and consumer whims that plague the sector.