There was a moment in the spring of 2021 when the steady growth of e-commerce actually reversed. For three months, Americans actually put down their laptops, mice, and smartphones and, like bears emerging from a very long hibernation, went out to enjoy the novelty of shopping for real things in real stores. Then the delta wave began, that mini-retail blip disappeared, and online sales resumed their relentless march toward gobbling up everything.

It probably comes as a shock to no one that in 2020 the United States set a record for retail closures, with 12,200 locations shutting their doors, according to commercial retail firm CoStar Group. But was that the effect of the pandemic, or was it something else? Because the record that 2020 broke was set in 2019, when 9,300 stores closed. That followed 2018, when 5,700 stores closed.

Some of the closures in 2020 might be more easily pegged to the pressures of the pandemic than others— clothing stores were more likely to turn out the lights than the grocery or drugstores deemed essential by authorities in many areas. Yet if you put 2020’s data on a chart next to that of previous years, it’s hard to even see the effect of the pandemic. 2020 was just another bad year for retail, in a a slide that’s been going on for decades.

In 1990 alone, 19 massive new shopping malls opened in America. It was the height of a retail build up that seemed unstoppable. More stores, more variety, more more. Decades later, when The New York Times reported on the state of American shopping malls, they noted that the empty corridors of what had been the glitziest, most upscale locations “looked as if a viral outbreak had removed all life from the place.” But that wasn’t the coronavirus at work, because The Times’s report came out in 2017.

Just like 2020 and 2019, 2017 was another record year for store closures. It’s not just malls that are emptying out, it’s shopping centers and shopping districts of all kinds. Of course, long before that came the gutting of America’s Main Streets, as big box stores—located carefully outside the tax boundaries of towns—sucked dry the “mom and pop store” dream.

A childhood haunting

Still, for a lot of people, seeing vast malls lying empty has its peculiar eeriness. When I first moved to St. Louis in 1981, there was a small shopping center—with just a handful of stores—at a place called Crestwood Plaza. Over the next decade, that location expanded into a huge mall with four “anchor stores,” including Sears and Famous-Barr. Thirty years later, I wandered through the empty shell of that mall, past closed theaters, empty fountains, and dusty bandstands. Two years ago, the whole place was demolished, as was another mall built in downtown St. Louis that once spanned three city blocks.

According to author Gillian Flynn, dead malls have a particular resonance with the people who once saw them as the centers of not just shopping, but socializing. “For kids of the ’80s especially, dead malls have a very strong allure,” wrote Flynn. “To see all those big looming spaces so empty now—it’s a childhood haunting.”

Well before the pandemic, I wrote about The Traveling Salesman Problem. By this, I don’t mean the classic mathematical puzzle, but the way trends in retail over the last half-century have eliminated whole swaths of jobs and businesses, all in the name of “productivity.” Much of America moved from a retail space once dominated by small stores and local outlets of a few national chains to big box stores and malls, to … dust. In the process, communities didn’t just lose those retail outlets, they lost all the jobs and infrastructure that supported that world.

My own father once owned three clothing stories—Rustic’s, which provided mostly women’s clothing; Rustic’s Also, for a younger crowd; and Factory Suits USA, which offered discounted menswear from Nashville factories. All of these were found on the same side of the street, in a town of with a population of just 3,000, and those three stores were just a few in an absolutely packed downtown. Those stores didn’t just employ clerks and salespeople on-site; they were supported by traveling salesmen, who stayed at the Dan Dee Inn and stopped for breakfast at the Corner Cafe—where my grandfather got up at 4 AM to start the coffee and fried biscuits.

Secondhand stores and payday loans

That era ended for my family in the 1980s, when Walmart and similar stores arrived, dropping their first hulking stores conveniently just outside the town’s borders, while huge malls sprouted in larger towns an hour down the road. A local store selling clothing, hardware, or most home goods became impossible to maintain in face of this competition. Those downtown stores gradually cycled through candy shops, theme diners, and specialty coffee spots, all in an effort to hold onto something that wasn’t available for cheaper inside a 200,000-square foot container, or in far more variety at a marble-clad shopping temple. Eventually, the small town stores edged toward their terminal condition—secondhand stores and payday loan offices. Which is itself a solid notch above the condition of many towns: completely empty.

But the era of Walmart and mega-malls was far shorter lived than the era that came before. Within a decade of that 1990 peak of 19 new malls, the building of new behemoths had completely stalled; a decade after that, malls were closing at a rate faster than they’d ever been built. That trend marched right on into the 2010s, riding not just a wave of mall failures but retail chains—Brooks Brothers, K-Mart, Sears, Borders, Pier 1, Toys ‘R’ Us—finding themselves on their way to becoming ex-retail chains. 

Ghost malls became a thing. So did a plague of empty big box stores. In many towns and small cities, a large percentage of the most accessible retail space—the space conveniently located along highways and near intersections—is now buried under empty malls and dead megastores, none of which have any real prospects of finding a new occupant. 

In rare occasions, some of these locations have been reclaimed as public spaces. In others, they’ve been converted into things like “antique malls,” the giant cousin of the secondhand store. But in most instances, they’re just drains on an area’s tax base, infrastructure, and property values.

All of this—the collapse of small towns, the rise and fall of shopping malls, the gradual whittling down of even the largest big box stores—all came before the pandemic. That 31% increase in retail closings in 2020 isn’t even close to the 63% increase that took place the year before.

Retail Apocalypse Redux

The Times’s 2017 article may be correct in pointing out that empty malls look like they’ve been hit by a virus, but the actual coronavirus had little to do with the retail apocalypse. The real cause has been, and is, the never-ending drive for increased profit margins that has driven the rise of e-commerce.

Going from 0% to 4% of sales between 2000 and 2010, e-commerce has made an almost maddingly persistent rise ever since. It was 7% of consumer sales in 2015, and 9% by 2017. It was 11% at the start of 2020. With the pandemic, it jumped abruptly to over 15%. Amid all this growth, there have also been a few months of decline in e-commerce as traditional retail—now measured in the form of those big box stores and surviving shopping centers—somewhat rebounded.

That rebound has generated a number of optimistic headlines this year. In addition to several months showing e-commerce decline, 2021 is actually expected to produce the lowest number of retail closings in the last five years.

But no one should expect that trend to continue. By the end of 2021, the marching line of e-commerce expansion is almost certain to once again begin growing its portion of consumer sales. And companies that held on through the pandemic are likely to find that the post-pandemic world is even less warm to in-person retail than during the already frosty pre-pandemic conditions. 

In the meantime, that same force is a big part of why the shelves at Target are bare, but the boxes from Amazon arrive full. 

Productivity is people

For decades, American businesses have pursued multiple versions of “lean” or “just-in-time” (JIT) business models. From lean manufacturing, to lean distribution, to lean retail, all of these are based on ideas gleaned from observing Japanese companies just before and after World War II.

These ideas took particular hold after the American auto industry found themselves losing huge portions of the market following the oil shock of the 1970s. All of this was against a backdrop that viewed Japan and its rapidly-growing economy in the way much of the U.S. sees China today: as a place with some kind of innate advantage in competing with American industry. In that atmosphere, business leaders resurrected observations about Japanese companies and turned them into holy writ that has since defined what “good business” means for at least two generations of American leaders.

In this ideology, ideas about keeping inventory on hand went out the window. So did ideas about the value of experienced workers who could handle their roles with flexibility. Instead, focus moved to management. It’s no coincidence that this is the era when salaries of CEOs and other top management began to explode, because the whole philosophy is one in which the plan with the fewest, cheapest workers is the best. For the last four decades, American companies have stayed true to that tune, treating every issue as something that can be addressed by better management, rather than by strengthening any other aspect of the system.

What companies tended to overlook is that Japan only went to this path because, at the time it deployed those rules in the 1930s, it was extraordinarily poor. Not only was Japan reeling from the worldwide Depression, it was also in the midst of a military buildup that saw it expending resources in all directions (it was also dominated by a political system that relied heavily on succeeding by assassinating the guy ahead of you in line … but that’s another story). 

Japan had no cash, no factories, and no natural resources. What it did have were millions of people who were, at the time, out of work, poorly educated, and viewed as disposable. Those were the conditions that drove the creation of the economic system that American companies would champion 50 years late—in a country that was wealthy, blessed with raw materials, and fortified by an experienced and well-trained work force. These U.S. companies brought in a system that was built on desperation, and discovered that it was uniquely powerful as a means of concentrating wealth into the hands of a few executives.

In the following decades, productivity—as expressed in terms of the profit generated from each worker—soared. And a system designed around impoverished workers with few opportunities created exactly that. Productivity is people. Or, more specifically, it’s the lack of people who have the authority and ability to create change.

Genuinely skeletal

Still, managers continued to be rewarded for squeezing human-shaped “inefficiencies” out of the system, And when brick and mortar stores were confronted with the challenge of e-commerce, there was only one solution they understood: They had to manage the holy shit out of this thing.

Under stress of trying to sustain an elaborate retail presence in the face of steady e-commerce gains, retailers have clawed for a winning formula, with terms like “destination retail” and “omnichannel marketing,” but all the marketing double-speak on the planet has refused to slow this steady decline. As a result, many retailers have gone way past “lean” or JIT and into the genuinely skeletal. In the effort to find a means of sustaining themselves, they’ve chopped a department here, outsourced a service there, and mercilessly cut, cut, cut back on people.  

One of the best examples of the effect might be that demonstrated, not by a retailer, but—perversely enough—by one of the companies on which e-commerce most heavily depends: FedEx.

As Bloomberg reports, rival shipping firm UPS maintains a cadre of relatively well-paid and highly experienced and unionized employees. UPS not only provides its drivers with solid pay and promotions, but provides benefits, including the kind of retirement package that most U.S. corporations long ago punted to the curb. 

In contrast, FedEx canned the majority of its “last mile” delivery service years ago, in favor of hiring independent contractors. Those contractors get fixed fees for deliveries, salaries, benefits, and pensions be damned.

But as the market for employees has been stressed during the pandemic, FedEx has repeatedly found itself facing staffing shortages and being forced to pay sharply higher prices for the deliveries it can get. Despite high demand and higher prices, FedEx has “leaned” itself into a situation where UPS outperformed it by almost $2 billion on nearly identical sales.

Keeping capacity works

For an on-the-ground example, see Costco. Throughout the pandemic, even as photographers snapped shots of the empty racks at other retailers, Costco has done a phenomenal job of keeping its stores operating not just as well as they did before the pandemic, but better. Same store sales are up 16% in the last year, and Costco managed this while at the same time increasing their own online sales by 44%. It’s done that, in part, by keeping employee turnover at a minimum, which comes from years of paying its employees well, offering them benefits, and respecting their health concerns during the pandemic. If “lean” companies are now finding themselves unable to keep the shelves stocked, Costco is fat and happy. 

But that experience is incredibly counterintuitive to what American businesses have done over the last four decades, and the lessons that every MBA in the country has been taught. In mimicking a system built in a period of extreme privation, companies traded well-paid employees invested in their work for disposable commodity workers and independent contractors, whose lack of knowledge wasn’t considered a detriment.

By treating workers as disposable, limiting opportunities, and constantly cutting away at benefits, companies created a system that maximized profit on the basis of productivity, even as it justified devoting an extraordinary amount of company pay to upper management. 

At the same time, these systems created companies that weren’t just fragile in terms of outsourcing manufacturing overseas or cutting back inventories to the minimum; they were “lean” in terms of knowledge. 

Over the course of four decades, all the wealth that used to be spread out among those traveling salesmen stopping for coffee, the people who both dealt with customers and did the books at small-town clothing stores, and workers found everywhere from assembly lines to accounting, moved into the pockets of CEOs. This redistribution of wealth happened not just because business was going through transitions that offered increased “productivity” through eliminating people, supported at every stage by improving technology, but because American managers were taught that this is the way it should be. 

Doing the morally right thing is good business

The same business philosophy that encouraged American corporations to get “lean” is at least partly responsible for both the massive increase in income inequality, and the fragility resulting from corporations whose ranks have been gutted of business knowledge. As businesses transitioned from small store, to mall, to big box, to e-commerce, not only were workers eliminated, but worker knowledge was devalued in favor of “management skills.” Every problem became treated as something that could only be solved by management supermen making godlike decisions—and who, naturally, deserved godlike salaries.

But as physical retail has increasingly faced off with e-commerce, the management über alles approach has repeatedly failed. That failure is measurable in empty stores and empty shelves, though not in the empty pockets of CEOs, who continued to suck up Zeus-worthy salaries even as they were generating Hades-quality results. On the other hand, companies that have continued to pay workers well and treat them as part of the solution (i.e. UPS and Costco) have proven to be more flexible and durable in a crisis.

None of these realities were created by the pandemic. If the advantage that e-commerce holds over the “brick and mortar” world got another big underscore during the last two difficult years, so did the advantages of companies that are able to retain experienced workers.

Still, don’t expect most CEOs to read much into that second advantage. After all, Costco had revenues of almost $200B in the last year and the CEO isn’t even a billionaire. Clearly they’re doing it wrong.