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US: The Pandemic Will Change American Retail Forever

We are entering a new evolutionary stage of retail, in which big companies will get bigger, many mom-and-pop dreams will burst, chains will proliferate and flatten the idiosyncrasies of many neighborhoods, more economic activity will flow into e-commerce, and restaurants will undergo a transformation unlike anything the industry has experienced since Prohibition.

This is a dire forecast, but there is a glimmer of hope. If cities become less desirable in the next few years, they will also become cheaper to live in. In time, more affordable rents could attract more interesting people, ideas, and companies. This may be the cyclical legacy of the coronavirus: suffering, tragedy, and then rebirth. The pandemic will reset our urban equilibrium and, just maybe, create a more robust and resilient American city for the 21st century.

1. THE BIG ACCELERATION

To see how the pandemic is already reshaping American retail, you don’t even have to go outside and count storefronts. Your receipts and credit-card statements tell the whole story.

On Thursday, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that retail spending in March collapsed by the largest number on record. Travel spending—including on airlines, hotels, and cruises—is down more than 100 percent, if you include refunds. Department stores and clothing stores are facing an extinction-level event after having experienced years of decline. Pockets of resiliency and even strength include grocery stores and liquor stores, which in March had their best month of growth on record. Home-improvement spending is up as well.

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