If you’re a clothes shopper, I probably don’t have to tell you that Nordstrom is in the middle of its annual anniversary sale. The summertime blowout has been a local fixture since before many of us were born.
But downtown Seattle is a vastly different landscape than it was in the 1960s, when the annual sale first started. Winding my way through the core of the city for a recent media event at the store at 500 Pine St., I couldn’t help but wonder: What will downtown retail look like 60 years from now?
These past few years have been brutal for brick-and-mortar retailers. An analysis of 136 national retailers’ bankruptcies by the private equity company CB Insights shows that department stores have been especially hard hit during the “retail apocalypse.” Since 2015, we’ve seen the bankruptcies of bread-and-butter stalwarts like Sears and JCPenney, along with high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus.
The bleeding started years before the pandemic, which only intensified retailers’ suffering. Nor can we lay all the blame at the feet of e-tailers like Amazon. The troubled companies were slow to adapt to modern shopping habits, the analysts concluded, eventually sinking under the weight of debt and poor executive decisions. Some of the bankrupted companies are trying again after corporate restructuring. Nationally, the outlook appears to be improving a bit in 2022, the analysts report.
That’s certainly been the case for Nordstrom, which In 2020 suffered a 22% drop in holiday sales receipts, closed more than a dozen stores, laid off thousands of employees and announced it would close its downtown corporate offices, as Seattle Times business reporter Heidi Groover wrote last spring.
This year, the retailer appears to be bouncing back. Overall sales were up 19% at the start of the year, according to the company’s first-quarter earnings call.
Indeed, the mood at that recent event, a sale preview for local journalists, was as upbeat as the giant yellow winky-face emoji inflatable tucked away in a cafe corner. Tables were dotted with bright-yellow floral arrangements and populated by women more stylish than I could ever aspire to be. But you don’t have to be a fashionista to care about the future of downtown retail. It’s a huge economic driver and one essential component of a diverse and thriving city core.
The Times editorial board has written extensively about the additional local pressures faced by downtown retailers, who continue to struggle with theft and vandalism punctuated by occasional mayhem. In 2020, Macy’s closed the doors of its downtown building for the final time, ending a 90-year run of retail at the corner of Third Avenue and Pine Street. Dozens of smaller retailers have also gone out of business. The Downtown Seattle Association’s 2022 State of Downtown economic report tracked a 15% decrease in retail jobs from 2020-21.
Although downtown retail foot traffic has been improving, our recovery has been slower than in other cities like San Francisco, Portland, Salt Lake City and Denver, according to the DSA report.
In one sense, it’s remarkable that Seattle’s hometown department store has been able to hang on — and even thrive — in such unsettling times. But every empty storefront is a reminder of the large and small businesses that suffered less auspicious fates.
What will the future look like? That depends largely on how Seattle leaders step up to support the heart of the city in the present day.