The last decade of the 20th Century proved to be the zenith of the most dynamic period in world history, ushering in an age of unprecedented technological advances. But it was slow in lifting off.
When the 1990s began, most Americans might have said the Internet was a hairspray. It was also a time of global recession. Beginning in the United States and the United Kingdom, hard economic conditions gripped continental Europe and eventually reached the Far East.
This shift from 1980s self-indulgence had dramatic effects on retail. Plagued with layoffs and uncertainty, consumers were suddenly more value-conscious than ever. "Sale" became the most compelling word in the retail vocabulary. In 1991, over 50 percent of all apparel sold domestically was purchased off-price. Wal-Mart flourished.
Retailers fought to reclaim shrinking market shares, offering an array of popular private labels - frequently in vendor-designed concept shops. Nike, Tommy, Liz, Ralph, Donna et al. dominated stores to such an extent that in mid-decade, retailers found themselves in the midst of an identity crisis. "Who are we?" they wailed. "And why do we all look alike?" For several, the answer was unwelcome. Many venerable retail giants succumbed to the intense competition. I. Magnin, John Wanamaker and Abraham & Straus were some of those that faded away.
Then the U.S. economy suddenly reversed itself, shifting into high gear. Suddenly, nothing was too good nor too expensive, and labels were everything
The World Wide Web spurred global connectivity and global awareness, bringing an intermingling and cross-pollenating of international cultures. Fashion transcended all international boundaries. Nike T-shirts were on the streets of Taipei and Nairobi, Hilfiger was in Seoul and Manhattan, Lagerfeld influenced Tokyo and Paris and all points in between.
As we entered the Information Age, retailers - through the Internet - became purveyors of information. The generations that controlled the mouse became the sought-after markets. Aging Baby Boomers were old hat. Now everyone wanted the younger, techno-savvy consumer, slicing those niches thinly into Generations X, Y and Z.
The new technology produced a new functionary: telecommuters, who worked out of their homes surrounded by their desktops, modems, faxes and phones. Barnes & Noble created a social environment for them to congregate, read the newspaper and sip coffee. Starbucks thrived providing comfortable gathering places. And Crate & Barrel became the place where they could envision and furnish their home/office.
Women pouring into the workplace became too busy to shop. So superstores gave them everything they needed in one easy-to-shop, in-and-out experience. So-called "category killers" - The Home Depot, Toys 'R'Us, Best Buy, Sports Authority, Office Depot and others - provided huge environments with an unprecedented focus and breadth of inventory.
Black dominated the fashion runways, and this "less is more" design manifesto defined a new style - minimalism. Simplicity drove fashion and store design. Calvin Klein's flagship on Madison Avenue mirrored his fashion aesthetic with an economy of line and palette.
Cutting-edge technology revolutionized retail with computer-aided design and manufacturing and electronic purchasing and replenishment. Data transfers that previously took days or even weeks happened instantly. At Federated, the Visual Directors'Team used video conferencing to share strategies and selling techniques throughout the entire far-flung organization.
Retail's job had always been to bring the customer to the marketplace. Now, technology was bringing the marketplace to the customer. By decade's end, the demise of traditional retail was predicted to be just a click away. E-tail would be the story of the 21st Century.
But retail proved resilient, fighting back with environments that reflected the new high-tech world. From those cobblestone urban streets at the last turn of the century, technology kept promising it would expand our horizons. Airplanes, automobiles, radios, motion pictures, television, computers - all incrementally increased our reach. Now the promise is at last being met - we're approaching the infinite corridors of cyberspace.