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June 18, 2009 4:31 PM

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A New Look

Cataclysmic financial swings overtook just about everybody last year and most businesses somehow muddled through. The real action -- the retail fallout -- might be just beginning.But it's hard to guess what will happen when we're all recovering from whiplash....

Cataclysmic financial swings overtook just about everybody last year and most businesses somehow muddled through. The real action -- the retail fallout -- might be just beginning.
But it's hard to guess what will happen when we're all recovering from whiplash. Things really hit me when I refreshed my Web browser last September or October to find the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen more than 600 points in a matter of minutes. Since I was going to need more than a couple ways to say "down," I put together an easy-reference list of options.

Dorky, yes, but an exercise that made it easier to make the call: Was the daily decline a plummet or a tumble? A slip or a dive? More disturbingly, there was need to repeatedly convey the sense of "fear" over everything from the credit market to the on-again, off-again banking bailout. Alarm, angst, jitters, panic, unease...all worked.

Now there is at least a visible and plausible path forward with a calmer banking sector and unemployment expected to have peaked by this time next year. But there is undeniably a new thread in fashion, one that is so omnipresent it cries out for another list of synonyms. This time it's "change."

At its best, of course, fashion is change itself, a world of new styles and new ideas to suit the mood of the moment. But the business -- increasingly controlled by bean counters and marketing strategists -- became stale as growth trumped style in too many cases.

Bigger just might not be better anymore, if it ever was, but the industry has been slow to catch on.

Mall anchors and apparel specialty stores are together expected to add more than 9 million square feet of selling space this year, even though the value of real estate and equity holdings of U.S. households fell by $6.14 trillion last year, according to Credit Suisse.

People simply cannot borrow enough to spend like they did. Credit card limits are coming down, home equity loans are nonexistent. Outstanding consumer borrowings fell 7.4 percent in April and 7.8 percent in March, said the Federal Reserve. Even the U.S. government is beginning to have uncomfortable conversations with its largest creditor -- China.
The consumption boom that began when Ronald Reagan was in the White House and legwarmers were popular (the first time) might well be coming to an end. And fashion's reaction so far has been to trim around the edges of the current model, cutting expenses and shuttering nascent or underperforming brands.

Something more seems to be called for.

Will it be a reinvention or reordering? An evolution or transition? Will it be the end of the traditional wholesale-retail model? A major consolidation of specialty stores? A mass extinction of mom-and-pop stores and manufacturers? New types of tenants for malls? A new luxury playbook? A full-scale U.S. invasion by H&M and Zara?

Whatever it looks like and whatever it's called, change is coming. Or already here. Just listen:
"How we have always done it is irrelevant," said Stephen I. Sadove, Saks Inc. chairman and chief executive officer. "We're approaching every area of the business asking how should we do it going forward."

Of course, predictions of systemic shifts in consumer behavior can be spectacularly wrong.
After the horrible attacks of September 11th there was great concern that consumers would never be the same. But the boom resumed relatively quickly.

This feels different. Terrorists hit the financial center in 2001, but eventually everyone resumed spending.

The financial crisis, on the other hand, is a product of the banks and their screwups and the sinking value of homes, many people's largest asset. It's sapping buying power from a consumer who has also suddenly begun to save.

Spending less and saving more might ultimately be a good thing for personal finances and even society, but the shift will force brands and stores to react. That reaction might well remake the industry.
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