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Like most Americans, especially those with roots in New York City, the events of 9/11 had a very profound effect on me. For a variety of reasons, I tend to think of the day in very personal terms. So last week when I got a request from our friends at Retail TouchPoints to comment on how I thought the events of that day changed retail I had to stop and think about it. In the end, I was happy to be able to say “Not at all.” That doesn’t mean retail hasn’t changed in these past eleven years. It has changed irrevocably – but in this case (unlike air travel, which has become a form of torture), we buy, sell and consume products with the same vigor we did before. It’s the “American Way.”
When then President George W. Bush suggested our best response as a nation was to “go shopping” I thought he was being more than a little strange. But in retrospect he was right (one of the few times I actually agreed with him). In the U.S. shopping is a form of Patriotism. It keeps the economy moving. It shows a lack of fear. We still don’t have metal detectors in our malls and stores. We worry very little about suicide bombers in the streets. Our way of life seems preserved. But let’s look at some data points from 2001, and see just how much life really has changed in the ensuing decade plus one year.
In 2001, the internet bubble was bursting. Or maybe I should call it Internet Bubble 1.0. Maybe the Facebook IPO signaled the end of Internet Bubble 2.0 – you know, the one that gave Groupon and LinkedIn crazy high valuations.
In 2001, we still used our phones as phones. I ran my entire retail corporate home office on a 768k DSL line. A T-1 was still considered a lot of bandwidth.
A terabyte was “big data.”
There was no such thing as YouTube, Twitter, iPad or iPhone.
Microsoft owned about 95% of the personal computing marketplace.
The banks hadn’t yet been bailed out. We hadn’t yet had the biggest global downturn since the Great Depression.
My house was worth exactly what it’s worth today (although there was a lot of drama in the years between and it sure was worth more when I bought it in 2004!).
I found this quote on a PBS site dated May 23, 2001: “traveling by car these days will cost you more this summer– at least $1.70 a gallon for gas. That’s the average price at the pump this month, up 13 percent from just a year ago.” Oy! Those were the days. When I returned from Ecuador this year, gas was $3.59 and climbing. By Labor Day, it was up at $3.99. It has since dropped back to $3.79. I swear, I feel like a commodities broker every time my gas tank(s) are empty. Do I fill up the tank because I think prices are rising? Or do I buy just a little because prices are falling?
Perhaps the single biggest change in retailing was already in full swing by 2001 – the shift of production to China and other low-cost sourcing countries. In 2001 it was reported that Burlington Industries of Greensboro, NC, which was the world’s largest textile maker in the late 20th century, declared bankruptcy. Notwithstanding the boon this production shift has been to retailers and brand managers’ gross margins, I am not happy with this change. We’ve created global economic dependencies that limit us in profound ways politically. The bankruptcy of Burlington Industries cost 80,000 jobs. And, at least in the US, we’ve done a really poor job re-training our work force for a post-industrial and post-real estate boom age. High tech jobs go unfilled, even as the unemployment rate hovers well above 8%. We cannot continue like this. It’s a trend that has continued regardless of the political party in power and our trade associations support it as well. Sorry guys, I just don’t agree.
Finally, in 2001 RSR wasn’t even a gleam in our eyes. In fact, as many of you know, 9/11/2001 was also the day I gave notice at my very last CIO job. I didn’t know what was in front of me, and the events of the day added to my trepidation, but I did it anyway. And here we are!!
I certainly couldn’t have imagined on that day that I’d end up part owner of a research firm…that I’d be something called “A thought leader.” And that I’d be exhorting you to read our latest merchandising benchmark, or watch the YouTube video fast fact promotion I created for it here.
At the end of the day, 9/11 was a tragic day in American if not world history. But as the old saying goes, “Time marches on.” I hope to be here eleven years from now to talk about how things have changed 21 years hence. Or maybe I’ll just be sitting on the beach in St. Croix, camera in hand, sipping rum punch and watching the sunset, reflecting on a long and happy life. And ordering more stuff from Amazon.com!