This post contains an update.

Retailers have been stunned by how abrupt the change in the economy has been and that it has happened across all strata of consumers. It is most pronounced in the luxury sector. As recently as seven or eight months ago, luxury thought that it was invulnerable, but that is not true.

Many luxury customers are aspirational and are vulnerable to downturns in the economy. The core customer with essentially unlimited disposable funds may no longer find it fashionable to behave as they had in the past. Irrational exuberance may not return and people may not seek to live beyond their means, choosing a more conservative lifestyle. Now, the customer is saving for the first time in many years, and this recession will leave a lasting mark on consumer behavior.

Jobs, confidence are lacking
Retailers are one of the largest sectors of the economy. They are very large employers. When business declines, retailers stop hiring. Layoffs soon follow. We’re seeing this across the country. Laying off large numbers of people creates a cascade of breakage. This impacts consumer confidence; everyone knows someone who was laid off. Stores begin to close. That is very visible. At the end of the day, if people don’t have jobs, there is no recovery and that’s the end of it. The consumer has to be viable, which means jobs and a rise in confidence. Many people with viable jobs become increasingly fearful of losing their employment. We’ve gone from irrational exuberance to irrational fear.

It’s good to be different
This downturn creates powerful opportunities for organizations to emerge if they can successfully differentiate themselves. Retailers with notable products and services can create enormous energy and value. Two examples are Apple and Amazon. Apple has a highly differentiated product and a selling environment at retail that is incomparable. Their market share will continue to climb as long as they continue to satisfy their customers’ needs and wants. Amazon aggregates assortments of merchandise in an on line setting that is the best in the world and continues to acquire more and more market share. They invested in an esoteric device, the Kindle, and surprise! It looks like a $1.4 billion business next year.

On the other hand, retailers with little or no forward strategy like the department stores, who have been playing out a “Last Man Standing” end game have little likelihood of future success and vitality. Layoffs in this sector are a tragic and ineffective expression of survival. You can’t use reductions in force as a strategic blueprint. It creates enormous disruption and leads to more crises downstream.

Good news for the shopper
Currently there is an enormous excess of inventory in many retailers supply chains because of recent extreme and unanticipated shortfalls in sales. These excesses will have to be liquidated. Retailers are dumping inventory, canceling what they can and avoiding buying forward product. In the next year we’re going to see fewer stores, less inventory overall in stores and less discounting because of less inventory. Prices will come down because consumers will expect more value and will be less willing to play the high-low game as they have in the past.

This economic downturn, recession if you will, is likely to continue for at least 12 to 18 months and maybe longer. I believe that when it is over the retail landscape will be very different than it is today.

UPDATE (2/25/09): Follow up from the Retail & Luxury Goods Conference. Keynote speaker Robert Burke said, “I don't think the department stores are completely dead and I don’t believe luxury is over. … It became overused and ambiguous terminology.” View the complete video (part 1, part 2) of his speech. -CN

Photo credit: Christopher Chan