The future of retail in uncertain times

Sep 10, 2020
Written by Renée Sunde, President & CEO

Retailers in Washington State have a lot to ponder in these unusual and uncertain times. Some are flourishing during the pandemic while others have closed or are fighting to remain open.

Like many other industries, retailers depend upon certainty, but these days are anything but certain. The pandemic drove the nation into a recession with an unclear recovery. It’s uncertain whether the state Legislature will meet in special session this year to address a serious revenue shortfall worsened by the pandemic. Could new taxes be in the offing?

Wildfires are raging and igniting dry ground on both sides of the Cascades. For nearly half the year, retailers have either struggled to reopen or to safely return to full capacity. The national political picture also is problematic with one of the most divided Presidential elections in our lifetime. Depending on the outcome, what new policies affecting retailers could result?

This all brings into focus how key current events are likely to shape or hinder an economic recovery.

As the state’s largest exporter by far, Boeing’s grounded 737 MAX airliner and depressed demand for travel has led to layoffs bound to impact the Puget Sound economy.

The future of downtown Seattle’s retail core is also in question. The City Council’s approval of a jobs tax on high earning employees has been followed by an announcement by Seattle-based Amazon that it would expand its Puget Sound workforce by 25,000 in Bellevue, not Seattle. This has led to speculation critical of the City Council by Windermere chief economist Matthew Gardner and Q13 Fox television commentator Brandi Kruse. Fortunately for retailers, Amazon’s new jobs paying in excess of $100,000 a year will remain in the Puget Sound region.

A bright spot is the continuing expansion of light rail service that will open new retail opportunities in the coming years in the Northgate and Redmond markets. It also will link South King County suburbs to downtown Seattle and Seattle to the burgeoning East Side without needing to endure heavy commuter traffic.

With so much change and uncertainty in the economy, retail also is evolving as technology redefines the role of shopping malls and how more shoppers will continue to use digital options to shop online. For the average brick-and-mortar retailer longing for certainty, these will remain challenging times.

The retailers who adapt and innovate to address the demands of changing times are likely to be those that will survive and even thrive. Others unwilling or unable to embrace change may not.