Wall St. Journal Validates Our Ongoing Prediction that Retail is in Trouble


One of the trends we predicted for 2019 is that there will be increased scrutiny about the state of the U.S. economy, which has become the longest recovery in the country’s history.

We don’t want to jinx it but we’ve long looked at two industries going through downward spirals: retail and journalism. And the reason we follow both industries is the belief that they are canaries as being early indicators.

The latest bad news for retail was a report that Dec. 2018 holiday sales was the worst Dec. since 2009. According to the Wall St. Journal, a soft retail market raises new questions about the economy. We’ve also seen other articles reporting more chains are closing stores or shutting down completely. 

Retail is an important sector because it also effects real estate and other businesses because empty store fronts reduce foot traffic to the area, providing fewer reasons to shop at other stores on the block. This is true in the UK, where the demise of main street (known there as high street) stores in some towns means residents have to drive 30 minutes or more to find things they used to be able to get in town. (Bloomberg Businessweek did a story within the past year or so about the downward spiral affect this has had on the general economic health of smaller towns.) But we’ve seen this happen in big cities too. (The New York Times did a story last year or two about the decimation of high-end stores in SOHO.)

And since retail is an employee-intensive business, when stores shut down, people are out of jobs. And while unemployment is low, fewer stores means fewer employees who may not be able to land another retail job or transition to a job in another industry. 

Fewer local retail stores means fewer ads in local media. And that leads to the problem with journalism.

Keep in mind, journalism as a product is generally doing well. Americans are paying attention to the news, if only because they’re getting hourly news notifications on their phones.

But the business of journalism is suffering. 

People are accessing news on the phones, often not paying for content. They’re not subscribing — paying — for the news and digital ads generate less money than traditional print ads. So news organizations have to contend with demand for news but generally with fewer subscribers and fewer (and less expensive) ads.

Which is not sustainable. 

The result: “Media Industry Job Cuts Nearly Tripled Last Year,” WWD recently reported, noting, “A study from an industry outplacement firm said 2018 was the worst year for media in a decade. This year isn’t shaping up so well already.” The article provided some unpleasant facts:

Companies operating in news, broadcast news and publishing, television and film and music cut just under 15,500 jobs last year, an increase of 281 percent over 2017 when 4,060 jobs were cut, making it the worst year for jobs in the industry since 2009, according to a study from industry outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. In 2009, media companies cut about 22,350 jobs.

And this year may be worse. Already, in Q1 alone, according to WWD, “newspapers and digital media companies like Vice and Buzzfeed have revealed layoffs totaling more than 2,000. In January alone, announced job cuts were already up 49.6 percent compared to the beginning of 2018, according to Challenger Gray.”

We’ve already discussed media layoffs this year.

But we feel that with traditional retail and traditional and digital news outlets suffering, the economy could be in trouble.

By the way, another threat to news organizations and media is that the push in digital advertising is to focus on consumer targeting. Big brands continue to spend a lot of money to reach audiences — but an increasing share of the money is going to providers of digital tools and data in a shift away from media companies. In other words, ad spends may not be decreasing but the amount being spent directly to media companies is decreasing. The media will have to figure out how to charge and be more effective in reaching and cultivating big brands’ customers. If they don’t, we will see ad dollars decrease even more.

If you have see some silver linings, let us know.

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