coaches polo shirts Online retailing spells the end for American malls but is breathing life into the Rust Belt
When Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with itscrumbling steel mills and sundered chimneys,becomes a symbol of economic lift off you know something seismic is happening in America. You know it too when Lord Taylor, one of the country’s most storied department stores, sells its Manhattan flagship to a cocky startup company offering shared workspace to millennials.
We are in thrall of a world changing at lightning speed, thanks largely to that thing we once called the world wide web. We love the many conveniences it gives us. “Alexa, write this column for me.”(If you haven’t asked Alexa or one of her competing voice command friends into your home yet, you really should.) But some of the economic fallout fromit we like much less.
We worry, notably, about how online living and shopping has compounded the difficulties so many communities face keeping jobs nearby for the families that live in them. Woe is the American retail sector for example. Shops you know, the Are You Being Served?kind with real people inside and real things to buy are vanishing in America faster than the leaves in autumn.
We all see it. I do, just around my home in Manhattan. The “Retail Opportunity”posters inside the glass of our old supermarket are starting to fade. Same at the old Polo Ralph Lauren shop in the building The Independent works out of. But try going beyond the big cities. It’s worse. Since the start of this year, retailers have announced plans to close 6,700 shops across the country. They have names like Sears, JCPenney, Ann Taylor, Gap, Banana Republic, Gymboree and Staples. Families flocked to them in their cars and so American suburbia was born.
Yet this narrative is more complicated than at first appears. And less gloomy. It isn’t just about the old giving way to the new. Or labour heavy industries giving way to labour light ones. Look more closely and the old models of doing business and the new ones are sometimes starting to mash together. They are colliding in ways that are producing new and unexpected energy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the opening of the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The NPC has over 3,000 delegates and is the world’s largest parliament or legislative assembly though its function is largely as a formal seal of approval for the policies fixed by the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. The NPC runs alongside the annual plenary meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), together known as ‘Lianghui’ or ‘Two Meetings’.
David Allen Turpin (C), who along with Louise Anna Turpin is accused of abusing and holding 13 of their children captive, appears in court with attorneys David Macher (L) and Alison Lowe in court in Riverside, California. According to Riverside County Sheriffs, David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin held 13 malnourished children ranging in age from 2 to 29 captive in their Perris, California home. Deputies were alerted after a 17 year old daughter escaped by jumping through a window shortly before dawn, carrying a de activated mobile phone from which she was able to call 911 for help. Responding deputies described conditions in the home as foul smelling with some kids chained to a bed and suffering injuries as a result. Adult children appeared at first to be minors because of their malnourished state. The Turpins were arrested on charges of torture and child endangerment.
Rescue services search for people in a damaged building in eastern Taiwan after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit Hualien on the night of 6 February, 2018. Media reports said several buildings were damaged and at least four people were killed and some 100 were injured during the quake. Teams are trying to rescue people inside the buildings. Some bridges and roads are damaged and the main road to Hualien is closed. More than 100 earthquakes have hit off Taiwan’s east coast in the past three days. The Seismological Observation Center said they are cuased by the friction between the Philipine Plate and Eurasian Plate.
Look at Bethlehem. Just 85 miles west of New York City,
it for ever embodied the crumbling of manufacturing. The fabled mills of Bethlehem Steel once employed tens of thousands, provided the girders of the Golden Gate Bridge and the amour plating for Eisenhower’s tanks. By 2002, it was all over. Bethlehem joined the vast wilderness they called the American Rust Belt.
And now? Stirring again, not because steel is back in vogue, but because online shopping has arrived. The city is in the heart of two counties through which flows the Lehigh River and, more importantly, Interstate 78. Companies like Amazon in the front lines of online retailing chose it as the perfect strategic spot to build urgently needed distribution warehouses. With them have come jobs too, most paying more per hour than people in shops are used to. In seven years, warehouse jobs in those two counties alone have tripled from 5,000 to over 15,000. A similar boom in warehouse building and warehouse staffing is occurring in counties across the land.
One online retail company, Zulily, has gone a step further in Bethlehem. As The New York Times reported last week, it hastaken over a portion of the old Bethlehem Steel Mill complex grand and, until recently, abandonedmonuments to old industry in deep red brick to house its newest, eastern seaboarddistribution centre. Inside are pickers, sorters, IT managers and fork lift drivers. To Bethlehemites those buildings were a graveyard where high wage jobs lay. Few ever imagined they would be applying to work there again. All that’s missing is the grime and black smoke.
Will Zulily be there long? Will its workers? That’s a good question as the next big revolution will be about robots replacing humans. But you have to take notice of the Bethlehem story. As you do the unexpected tango of old and new going on at Lord Taylor.
At one level, it’s quintessential old guard surrender. Lord Taylor is an institution in trouble also. Around for over a hundred years, it’s Manhattan mainstay a landmarked building on Fifth Avenue pioneered the tradition of Christmas window displays. But its owner, Hudson’s Bay Company of Canada, is dealing with the same pressures as everyone else:jobs and square footage must go. The $850m(647m) it got for the building will help pay down debt.
That the buyer was WeWork said it all. The Silicon Valley startup has been snaffling buildings in cities everywhere to cater to millennials who don’t want to commit to an office of their own but don’t want to work from home either. Typically, a WeWork location offers individual office spaces of varying sizes across a shared floorwith common areas for flirting, networking and free beer on Fridays. The Lord Taylor building is going from gussets to gizmos. In fact, WeWorkplans to turn the building into its headquarters.
But Hudson’s Bay thinks it isn’t surrendering but being clever.
And you never know,maybe one of the wizz bang smart WeWorkcrewwill help Lord Taylor build a decent and attractive website. So it can thrive in this brave new world.
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