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February 13, 2012 1:18 PM

Business

The More Things Stay the Same...

The fashion elite are gathering to search for glamour in a series of tents. Big money investors are circling the heavily indebted Barneys New York. Ralph Lauren is printing money, almost completely unhindered by the shuttering of American Living. J.C....

The fashion elite are gathering to search for glamour in a series of tents. Big money investors are circling the heavily indebted Barneys New York. Ralph Lauren is printing money, almost completely unhindered by the shuttering of American Living. J.C. Penney is reinventing, again.

And the Juicy girls are back -- and still wacky.

There are some things that never seem to change. Everything else is in flux. It's not fast change like everyone says it is. It's a warm bath of slow adjustment -- at least to our stimulus-crazed brains. It's change that takes just enough time to grab hold that you can trick yourself, if you really want to, in believing that nothing's really changing at all.

Or as Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University, says, some people are coping with the shifting landscape by zeroing in on one aspect of their business. "To avoid the anxiety of the overwhelming amount of change going on they sort of focus their efforts into one area," she said. "They say to themselves, 'We have to find a way to make our online presence more usable.' People get all excited about one area where there are millions of different ways the retail landscape is changing."

The Internet is a good example.

It arrived on the scene with lots of bluster and retailers were tripping over themselves to get online. For years they tried to figure out where e-commerce fit or how much emphasis it should get.

Then somewhere along the way the Web shifted from the new novelty and the next big thing to just another way to drive revenue. It became a half-hearted replacement for the catalogue. Now that it's taken off, retailers point to their quickly ballooning e-commerce businesses as a sign of success. For many, it's the only growth they can point to.

The industry got smoked by Amazon.com, which grew its business exponentially and with intense focus, logging $17.3 billion in U.S. electronics and general merchandise sales last year. Those sales could have gone to traditional retailers. The Web giant is now said to be looking to open its own stores, taking a page from Apple's successful retail playbook.

And all sorts of other changes are moving through.

Social media is becoming a force in commerce, not just a digital hangout. The economics of retail real estate are shifting. Credit Suisse warned in a recent analysis that the closure of anchor stores threatens weaker "C" and "D" malls with a retail version of colony collapse disorder, which decimated the honeybee population. Sears Holding Corp. is already closing up to 120 doors and others could follow suit, prompting other chains to pull out of sunset malls.

The consumer is still discombobulated by the horrible housing market, high unemployment, the presidential election, the bad headlines out of Europe. They don't know where to turn.

This has all been going on for so long now, it just seems normal. So normal, in fact, that retail stocks are hitting all-time highs, singling that investors see better times around the corner.

Even if better times are just around the corner, the retail landscape is still going to look much different. And it will continue to shift. There's just too much going on to believe in any kind of real retail solidity.

So the message is: Be sharp, the retail world will require it.
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