When an iconic fixture of any landscape falls, it shakes confidence.
Last week, it was the news broken by St. Cloud Times reporters that St. Cloud's Sears store — a fixture here since 1928 — would be gone in a matter of months.
After almost 90 years on our landscape, Sears will soon be over.
Chatter started quickly in some quarters about what it all means. Of late, the trendy term "retail apocalypse" is invoked under such circumstances, calling into question the future of malls and downtowns everywhere.
But are store closures and bankruptcies in a handful of retailers really another sign that stores are going the way of the dodo? Or is it simply a symptom of another industry in the throes of creative disruption?
Despite the current penchant for labeling changes in bricks-and-mortar retailing as an "apocalypse," signs point to the latter. And so we need to do more than stand by and watch. We need to plan for what's next.
For the record, creative disruption is a term describing the entry of a new force into an established system. That force generally improves conditions or outcomes overall, even though it will disrupt or destroy some portions of the system.
We in the news business know a lot about creative disruption. So do those who invented streaming and satellite services that have turned the cable industry on its head, those who install landline phones, and those who thought selling airplane tickets on the internet would be interesting, just to name a tiny few of the businesses that have been utterly transformed in the past 25 years.
Sears' corporate struggles and imminent local demise are symptoms of, among other things, the disruption brought forth by e-commerce. If you love Sears and the products it sells, that disruption is troubling. If you love shopping on your couch at 2 a.m. for cutting-edge products and having those items delivered to your door, it's no big deal.
But those who are interested in the bigger picture have more to consider when major retailers fold their tents.
Leaders in government and business are charged with looking into the future and making educated guesses about what types of ventures can — and more importantly, should — be courted to take their place. They are also responsible for being ready for what comes next.
In the short term, filling the gap will always take precedent. In the long term, where should we be headed, knowing that creative disruption will continue, well, forever?
How will self-driving vehicles change retailing, for instance? One industry watcher writing in The Atlantic conjures up visions of a driverless pharmacy van patrolling your neighborhood, ready to be summoned by smartphone when you really, really need a Band-Aid.
How will "intelligent" personal assistants like Alexa and Echo make their mark on shopping?
What types of products — diamond rings, camping gear, paint, antiques — will most consumers of the future always want to see and touch before they buy?
And what kind of experience will people want when they "go shopping" outside their homes 20 years from now? Fifty years from now? Will the communal experience of malls be attractive? The boutiques of a downtown? Something completely different?
The answers have broad public policy implications, particularly for zoning and transportation, jobs and taxes.
We have to fill the gaps, while also trying to be ready for the future.
Ultimately, the retail industry is changing. But like travel agents and news outlets, stores to shop in won't end. They will evolve, just as they should. Communities need to be ready.
St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times, Oct. 14.