The Retail Apocalypse

We need to slow the retail apocalypse in New York.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Rhea Malhotra

Toys “R” Us closed its Times Square location in 2015. As a kid, I loved that store. I would walk in and be awed by the colorful Ferris wheel that somehow fit inside the building and the life-size animated characters that decorated the place. It was one of many iconic big shops in New York that made the city so special. It’s also what made the decline of Toys “R” Us so shocking. 

The decline of Toys “R” Us isn’t special; it’s part of an organized trend in America. In America, more shops have closed than opened between 1995 and 2021. This retail apocalypse has been slowly consuming America for decades. It is especially hard to ignore in New York City, where daily life is spent traveling through commercial areas. Every day, you see the same shops over and over again until one day, one of them closes. Then another closes, and another, and so on. Other shops open, but they make no dent in the rhythm of closures. American retail is undergoing a lethargic decline that feels more and more apocalyptic.

The retail apocalypse is the trend of retail stores closing in America. Though it has been happening for a while, it has recently been accelerated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ease of online shopping and the push to remote work have left many physical shops in the dust. This has led to the closing of big box stores like Toys “R” Us, Target, Rite Aid, and Marshalls, which are often reported on, in New York. However, it’s also caused closures in smaller stores around the city. In my neighborhood, I see a specific corner location close and reopen every year under new owners, constantly trying to survive until the new year but never making it. Though they don’t get the same attention as the big stores, it’s the combination of these big and small closures that shows how the retail apocalypse is affecting our city. The government needs to prioritize stopping store closures, big and small, to protect the essence of New York City for the people who live in it. 

Toys “R” Us and other closing stores have failed to adapt to the growing popularity of e-commerce. Since the creation of companies like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy, purchasing all kinds of products without hassle has become possible. Despite the ease that comes with this shift, e-commerce lacks the in-store experience created by stores like Toys “R” Us or even simple malls. These interactions can have mental health benefits for shoppers and are an advantage of physical stores over their internet counterparts. Just talking to someone, even if they’re a stranger, can improve a person’s mood. Online shopping can’t provide these kinds of small interactions that many people could benefit from. Online shopping also has other downsides, as it’s associated with poor working conditions. Amazon has long committed this crime, with employees complaining of the ruthless pace the company works at and the long hours a job takes. Just this year, everyone heard about the struggles of Amazon workers unionizing for the first time in the company’s thirty years despite previous unsuccessful attempts. However, the ease of online shopping cannot be beaten, so instead, it is the in-person stores that are left to decay.

Today, another factor accelerating the retail apocalypse is remote working, a lingering effect of COVID-19. Since remote work left once bustling downtown areas vacant, the businesses that used to be busy were left struggling. Even now, as the pandemic has eased, business has not returned in full to these shops due to the one million Americans that have migrated from cities to the suburbs over the past couple of years. Now, retail is following them out.

While the retail apocalypse mainly refers to big businesses, it applies to small businesses as well. New York City has the most closures of small businesses in the country since the pandemic, at around 3,000 closures. On the West Side of Manhattan, 85 shops are empty within 51 blocks on Broadway, an avenue known for commerce, as of September 2023. Earlier counts within smaller ranges suggest that the number of vacant storefronts is only increasing. Small businesses are not exempt from the decline of the retail apocalypse, but New York wouldn’t be what it is without them. It would mean Stuyvesant without Terry’s or Ferry’s, or your middle school without its favorite pizza shop. Some of the fondest memories are made in small businesses, which is why we can’t let them go under.

Big or small, all closings affect the feeling of a neighborhood. A neighborhood in New York is made up of a unique combination of people and stores. In my neighborhood, I had a favorite ice cream place that I would take my grandmother to every month. The shop was pretty and always had smiling cashiers. But the shop went just beyond its appearance for me: it symbolized a connection between me and my grandmother. When it closed, I was heartbroken. The closing of this shop isn’t a one-off in my neighborhood. There are so many more places that others have loved and felt connected to that are now closed, leaving an ugly, vacant storefront on the street. When faced with store closures so often, you can’t get attached. Filled with vacant storefronts that have nothing to love, a neighborhood can feel helplessly stagnant. The retail apocalypse in New York is an attack on the spirit of the city, which is built by businesses and dreams that thrive in this city. 

These closures are even a loss to the government, as they reduce the taxable revenue base of the area. However, the government has not been doing enough to counteract the closing of businesses. The retail crisis will only get worse, so the government needs to improve its response to it instead. New York City should aid its small businesses by decreasing rent for their spaces. This could work on a sliding scale that discounts rent by a specific percentage when a store first opens and lessens the discount the longer the store is in business. This could help small businesses get started in New York City and help them stay open without as many financial troubles. While the government should improve its reaction to the retail apocalypse, large businesses should also focus on customer service and the experience their store provides to draw away from competing with online shopping. The government could also help out big stores by implementing a tax on online competitors in the city, which would further highlight the uses of in-person shopping. By implementing these changes, New York City can start to calm the apocalyptic fear that has crept into our city at the sight of closed businesses.