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Retailers Are Hurting, But Tech Isn’t the Only Culprit

We’ve been trained to think that technology is behind every positive and negative factor affecting business. Digital transformation creates mega-cap businesses in decaying industries (Facebook in publishing) and zaps even established technology players that move too slowly (see Apple vs. Nokia, BlackBerry, Motorola, etc.)

And so when I started reading Phil Wahba’s important feature in the upcoming issue of Fortune, “Everything Must Go,” about the demise of the department store, I assumed the storyline would be about the damage Amazon (AMZN) has inflicted on retail behemoths. Spoiler alert: What Amazon has wrought is old news. The department stores—Macy’s (M), Sears, Kohl’s (KSS), J.C. Penney (JCP), and others—are doing a rather brisk business in e-commerce. No, their true problems, writes Wahba, go far deeper. These include excessive discounting; a phenomenon retailers call “an ocean of sameness” in product offerings; an overreliance on apparel at the expense of novelty items; and even a revolt by their own vendors, panicked that pushing their wares in dying emporiums will drag them down too.

It’s not a new problem, by the way. Wahba notes that department stores have been “dying” since the 1930s. Retail experts suggest that one way to revive the stores is to focus on experiences, to give shoppers a reason to visit, like events or interesting displays or unusual merchandise.

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This is amusing for two reasons. First, it’s what department stores were really good at in their prime. I’ll never forget visiting the flagship Marshall Field’s store in downtown Chicago for its wondrous old-world charm—and not just at Christmastime. This also resonates because one of the great retailers of our time, Apple, understands perfectly well the value of a magical experience in its stores. Indeed, though Apple is selling technology, it has done it in an exceedingly personal way.

Technology is neither the solution to all problems nor the ogre that will eat all businesses. Sometimes the human element is what matters most.