The News of Retail’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Written by Shlomo Morgulis |

Retail has received a lot of negative press in recent months, but the overall health of the sector is more nuanced than some doomsayers let on. The growth of e-commerce has presented brick-and-mortar stores with significant hurdles, and it’s likely that the worst is yet to come in certain markets.

But the old real estate saying, “location, location, location,” is more than just a catchy maxim. A key factor in retail is demographics, and New York and New Jersey are blessed with some of the most densely populated counties in the country. Developers are betting big money that in particularly well-trafficked areas like Hudson Yards, shops will be able to succeed even when situated seven stories above terra firma.

Of course, there are very few areas where we can anticipate the traffic of a Hudson Yards, and successful multi-story retail properties are more the exception than the rule. But it’s still important to look at the sector with some nuance. A survey released last year showed that more than 80 percent of Americans admit to making impulse purchases, and 79 percent of those people made most of their impulse buys in a physical store. We can expect such impulse buying to remain the domain of brick-and-mortar stores. As certified financial planner Karen Lee has put it, “[w]hen something is tangible and is right in front of you, it sparks the impulse to buy more than a picture on your phone.”

Like much of the retail story, the impact of the impulse buy is tied to population density. There’s no reasonable comparison between rural areas and major metropolises, and it’s generally dangerous to extrapolate from one to the other. But a place like Manhattan — where thousands and thousands of people parade past a storefront just asking to be lured in — simply has too many people for retail to die.

The retail market in the city may be overheated; but once things sort themselves out, we will only see its demise if humanity gains more self-control.