Payless ShoeSource announced Tuesday that it would immediately close 400 of its store locations on account of bankruptcy. On this list is my local store in Towanda, Pennsylvania.
Towanda, for those of you who are unaware, is the county seat of Bradford and has a population of roughly 3,000 people. It's not a very big borough, but it finds its charm in its historic buildings and the herculean efforts of the borough to keep the main thoroughfare clean and attractive. And it's dying.
Towanda's population maxed out in 1900 at 4,600 people and has been in a steady decline ever since. With such a small local population, already flagging businesses suffer huge losses from a community that simply doesn't have enough people to support them. Payless is far from the first retail casualty our town has experienced. Our Fashion Bug went under a few years back, and two years ago our local Sears permanently closed its doors. But so far, 2017 has been the worst year for our businesses. J.C. Penney said it was shutting down 138 of its brick-and-mortar stores last month, our store among them, and local rumor has it that our K-Mart and Ben Franklin's, a locally-owned craft store that's been in business since 1976, are on their way out, as well.
It isn't just small communities who are getting hit, however. The whole of brick-and-mortar retail is a sinking ship. Sears Holdings, once the frontrunner of the mail-order catalog in the late 1800s, planned to close 150 Sears and K-Mart stores by the end of March, and there's now significant doubt that it will even survive. Macy's is closing 68 stores this year. Heck, even the supergiant of grocery shopping, Walmart, closed 154 stores in the United States in 2016.
What's causing this huge wave of shut-downs? Part of it is a flooded market. The United States has 23.5 square feet of retail space per person, the most of any country in the world—in comparison, the country with the second-most amount of retail space per person, Canada, has only 16.4 square feet. But the big contributor to the failing retail industry is a change in the way and why of shopping. As we all know, the convenience of online shopping is a big draw. Why go to a mall when you can order anything you could possibly want from the comfort of your own home? Additionally, people are spending more money on travel and technology and less on clothing and accessories, making malls obsolete.
When you have a cultural change as massive as the internet, there will always be casualties as companies try to adjust to consumers' tastes. But ultimately, not all will make the transition successfully. Businesses will fail, and when they do, they'll take the livelihoods of hundreds of people in tiny rural communities like mine with them.