Does the Decline of Retail Mean We’re Turning away from Seeking Happiness in Stuff?


I’ve seen a spate of articles in the past month about the declining fortunes of retailers in the U.S. Stores are closing at an unprecedented rate, resulting in thousands of lay-offs and millions of square feet of vacant real estate. Much of the coverage has focused on the plight of retail workers who have lost their jobs and on the problem of empty mall space making additional retail closings more likely. But from another perspective, the closing of stores and retail outlets may hint at a positive trend: perhaps Americans are less interested in spending time shopping, and are instead engaging in more fulfilling activities.

An empty Kmart in Brooklyn, Ohio. Credit: Nicholas Eckhart CC BY-SA-NC 2.0.

True, part of the reason brick-and-mortar stores are closing is that consumers are doing more of their shopping online, and when we do shop in-person, we are shying away from conventional mall retailers and instead seeking discount stores. It is also the case, though, that Americans increasingly perceive the path to satisfaction is through experiences and opportunities to be with friends rather than acquisition of more stuff.

As The Atlantic explains:

“Before the Great Recession, people bought a lot of stuff, like homes, furniture, cars, and clothes, as retail grew dramatically in the 1990s. But something big has changed. Spending on clothes is down—its share of total consumer spending has declined by 20 percent this century.

“What’s up? Travel is booming. Hotel occupancy is booming. Domestic airlines have flown more passengers each year since 2010, and last year U.S. airlines set a record, with 823 million passengers. The rise of restaurants is even more dramatic. Since 2005, sales at “food services and drinking places” have grown twice as fast as all other retail spending. In 2016, for the first time ever, Americans spent more money in restaurants and bars than at grocery stores.”

The U.N.’s 2017 World Happiness Report explains that social factors are more important for predicting people’s level of happiness than are income or expecting a longer healthy lifespan. Knowing that you have friends you can lean on during times of trouble is a key element of happiness. Cultivating and maintaining such friendships requires time and effort, and perhaps the rise in travel and eating out is a reflection that Americans are choosing to invest in social ties instead of new goods.

With consumers shopping online more and seeking experiences rather than goods, it is hard to imagine that retail spaces will refill with new stores any time soon. The challenge will be repurposing that space in ways that will make us happier—as restaurants, as indoor playgrounds, or other uses that support social connections.