Death at Sears, Best Buy, JCP Hurts America

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's been nothing short of a volatile and downright entertaining start to 2014 in physical retail. But it's not like the brick and mortuary stores (a term coined by the great Downtown Josh Brown on Twitter (TWTR)) haven't brought the pain on themselves.

In this article, I summarize and build on my take on retail's conundrum beyond the recent controversy surrounding Sears (SHLD). This conversation matters within, but also outside of investing -- retail's survival really ought to be an issue of critical national concern.

Because it's not just Sears on the verge of "death," it's names such as Best Buy (BBY), J. C. Penney (JCP) and, to a lesser extent, Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart (WMT).

First, two key points ...

One ... how do we define terms such as "survival" and "death" within the context of these conversations?

While I certainly believe more than a few physical retailers, even some big names, will go the way of Circuit City, references to survival and death have as much to do with relevancy as they do the notion of struggling to exist or not existing at all.

To illustrate this, consider a Twitter exchange I had with TheStreet's Brian Sozzi on Friday:


And that's the thing. Can we really characterize JCP outliving Sears and surviving as this place where you participate in uninspired consumption as success?

That's certainly not what Jeff Bezos set out to do at Amazon.com (AMZN). The guy and his teams visioned and are accomplishing something special. Keep that point in mind because, contrary to what might spring intuitively, the brick and mortuary guys do not need another Jeff Bezos.

And two ... I say "to a lesser extent" on Target and Wal-Mart because both companies appear to have realized something others mentioned in these discussions missed. They recognized the need to not only downsize some stores (that's what BBY did on its first turnaround), but to urbanize things a little bit.

Wal-Mart put its neighborhood concept into action. And, while I'm not enamored with the results, Target continues to go relatively big on its slightly smaller, urban shopping street, City Target stores.

In my mind -- and, granted, I live in my own little world -- this was an admission by Wal-Mart and, more so, Target that maybe they were too suburban. Along similar lines, Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz noted that his company needs to make newly-acquired Teavana more of an urban presence.

If you're going to build a new store or relocate an exisitng one, don't instinctively do it in or move it to a dying shopping mall or similar environment. Take it to where the action (and so much of the money) is -- the nation's liveliest urban shopping districts.

For better or worse, our urban (and suburban) built environments are all about shopping. About consumption. To have lively built environments and, in turn, a robust economy, we need a thriving retail sector. You're not going to have a thriving retail sector -- at least not in a new world run by companies such as Amazon and Apple (AAPL) -- if you don't have a fresh and innovative retail sector.

Walk the streets of Manhattan or San Francisco, bustling neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles area or head to smaller cities such as Portland, Oregon. Compare them to relatively beaten down places or even beaten down neighborhoods within otherwise healthy cities. It doesn't take much of a noodle to determine that the existence of appealing retail options -- from clothing to food and beverage and everything in between -- drives vibrancy and, hence, real worth texting home about success.

If you observe retail in these settings, you witness considerbly more success than failure. And it comes in across the spectrum, from small and local business to mega chains that become part of the community.

Struggling physical retailers such as Sears and JCP need to find a way to capture that fabric and claim part of it as their own. In other words, they need to reinvent not only themselves, but a segment of space within the thriving sub-sectors of physical retail. This isn't to say they abandon everything that's not on an urban shopping street. It's just simply one aspect of a reorganization that absolutely has to contain more than cutting prices and slashing expenses.

Employees of technology (and related) companies drive the economies of the types of places I'm talking about. And that's apropos. Because traditional retailers must take a page out of Starbucks' and Amazon's book and start thinking like tech companies. This means hiring tech visionaries, not retail lifers. But that doesn't mean looking for the next Jeff Bezos.

Amazon has already disrupted physical retail to the point of decimating it. Brick and mortar cannot merely look to recreate Amazon's magic or ride the wave of the new world Amazon created.

That is, after all, at the heart of a Sears or Best Buy strategy. They say it themselvess when they talk about driving online sales and allowing consumers to shop via any platform they desire. Or when Sears refers to a rewards program -- a weak Amazon Prime knock-off -- as an example of radical transformation.

These guys need to vision a new way forward. They need to devote all of their resources not to stabilizing and, subsequently, making the misguided decision to preserve the current business, but to conceiving something different from but just as game changing as Amazon conceived in the late 1990s.

It's not within the imaginative capacities of the present regimes in big box retail to take on such an admittedly extraordinary and next to impossible task. They require new blood. People who understand the Amazon way, but aren't going to just feebly mimic it.

Follow me at TheStreet and on Twitter because I intend to pick this conversation up where we have left it off. I'm already writing the next piece that will continue to push things forward. We're taking it to retail hard. And believe me, they're listening not just to me, but to your loud and constant reaction. 

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks. Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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