Consumer product retailers and wholesalers must rapidly transform their traditional business models to keep pace with an extraordinary shift in power from producers and sellers of goods to consumers, argued acclaimed retail consultant and author Robin Lewis before a large Cornell crowd Oct. 21 in the Statler Ballroom.
If they don't adapt to the new realities, Lewis warned, "they will lose," adding that "in the near future the words retail and wholesale will likely cease to exist."
Lewis, author of The Robin Report, an influential periodical for executives in the apparel, footwear, accessories, beauty and home industries, co-author of the upcoming book, "The New Rules of Retail," and a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, was on campus to deliver the second Nixon Distinguished Speaker Series lecture.
In his talk, "The End of Retailing -- In its Third Wave," Lewis noted that the transfer of power to consumers has been hastened by globalization, a rise in e-commerce triggered by widespread personal and mobile computing and a saturated marketplace. The result, he said, is an explosion of retailers competing for a limited pool of consumer dollars and higher costs of entry for sellers to merely achieve competitive parity.
"Like death and taxes, the only other immutable inevitability in American life is the never-ending expansion of retail space and the stuff in it," said Lewis. "E-tailers," he said, continue to grow their market share, resulting in "hundreds of thousands of products right at our fingertips."
To compete, businesses must respond, Lewis said, to such growing consumer demands for "a shopping experience" as stores and websites become destinations for brand enthusiasts; for customized, niche labels; for accessible luxury, as famed designers enter chain stores; for fashion that changes rapidly; and for products and brands that evoke community values.
"In the land of excess, consumer is queen," said Lewis. "If businesses don't give consumers what they are dreaming for, they will just walk out the store to another across the street or keystroke to another website."
Ultimately, Lewis predicted, businesses that aggressively distribute their goods "pre-emptively, precisely and perpetually" to reach consumers at their convenience will be the successful ones. Wholesalers and retailers will become brand managers, controlling every aspect of their products, from creation to point of sale. Lewis suggested the new models will result in unlikely scenarios, such as Amazon opening up physical stores and department stores installing Victoria's Secret and other popular brands as in-house boutiques.
"He is sharing a unique perspective because of his connections to academia and the retail industry," said Jacqueline Pribil '05, a first-year Ph.D. student in apparel design. "It was very valuable to hear his views on the revolutionary transformations under way."
The event was hosted by the College of Human Ecology and the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design and funded by a gift from Lea and John Nixon, both Class of 1953 to bring leading scholars and professionals in the fashion and apparel industry to campus every other year.
Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.