Back to the Future: History Lessons for the Retail Industry Today

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To survive the online revolution, retail stores should study a similar period of mass disruption – the fabled decade of the 1950s, when the advent of television nearly destroyed the movie industry of its day.

During this time, movie attendance in the U.S. plummeted more than 50 percent, from 90 million a week in 1946 to 40 million a week in 1960.  With the arrival of “free TV,” consumers no longer had to leave home to enjoy filmed entertainment. The industry was forced to downsize, close theaters and lay off thousands. Anxiety and desperation swept through the movie studios.

The retail industry today is beset by comparable threats – cheap and easy online sellers ranging from giants like Amazon to a fleet of start-ups. Department store sales have declined by nearly one-third over the last decade along with countless store closings and bankruptcies.

Which is why retailers must do today what the movie industry did then- fight back.

How did the studios fight back? First and foremost, they innovated. They promoted new, unproven actors over proven stars. They took great risks with new technologies. They revamped their product and focused on delivering an experience people couldn’t have at home.

The movie industry laid a blueprint for reinvention many years ago that’s a path forward for the retail industry now. Here’s what retail needs to do.

In-Store Experiences

The new technologies that movie studios launched in the 1950s still resonate today — Panavision, Cinemascope, and four-track stereo. The retail industry has historically been slow to adopt such transformative platforms, but we’re now at a place and time where technology can deliver the kinds of new and immersive experiences that compel people to leave their homes.

A number of pioneers are forging ahead – IKEA shows shoppers how new furniture will look in their living rooms with the power of Virtual Reality, and LEGO’s ‘Mosaic Maker” combines interactivity with personalization, so consumers can create their own LEGO-ified mosaic self-portrait. Even the most mundane signage is up for reinvention – no longer just informational, but now a source of info-tainment. The technology is ready, limited only by imagination.


Catching a snapshot of stars on the red carpet didn’t become a thing until the mid-50s, when Grace Kelly first paraded a custom gown at the Oscars. Movie going became more than a transaction, it was an event. Retailers today can make their stores a must-see destination too.

The key is recognizing that retail spaces can and should be home to much more than merchandise. Macy’s transforming select stores and hosting runway shows this summer, engaging every-day shoppers with fashion influencers and wardrobe stylists, is a good case in point. Some retailers are even becoming an “I do” go-to place as a way for couples to commemorate where they met, their first dates, or have their wedding stand out on Facebook. Re-defined retail has the power to bring people together in ways digital shopping never will.


As movie ticket sales plunged in the early 1950s, counter-intuitively, concession sales went up. Theater owners realized that amenities beyond the movie itself were a draw.

The old view of in-store dining was a quick and simple add-on. Food courts were filled with fast food and maybe an arcade for the kids. Today, malls and marketplaces can create their own portfolio of value-add culinary enticements that can compete independently while adding value to the overall shopping experience.

Urbanized food halls, wine tastings, regional brands, locavore (local food) offerings, homegrown chefs, such as those now drawing traffic at Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, should all be on retail’s progressive menu. Trendier venues like Tommy Bahama and Urban Outfitters are already driving traffic around social gatherings by building a pizzeria and bar into their respective flagship stores


Once movies withstood the initial assault, the advent of TV actually helped the movie studios, providing a new and highly profitable distribution channel for studio content.

Brick and mortar today can build a similar symbiotic relationship with online – the key is embracing the benefits and opportunities that social+mobile bring rather than pushing back on the challenges they present. Apps like Yelp, Eventbrite, Instagram’s new “locational stories,” and others give retailers the power to interact with shoppers, create a two-way dialog, get real time feedback, and build a community. Retailers also can extend their in-store conversations through digital channels like Facebook, ensuring shoppers are connected with the right salespeople.

The fact that Amazon, the mother of online disruption, is investing in brick-and-mortar as the final point of consumer engagement for their online brands, says everything about retail’s latent power to attract and engage.

We know today that movies recovered and much more from their near-fatal challenges of the 1950s. In 2016, the top 100 movies released in the U.S. grossed $11.3 billion domestically.

What’s needed to save retail today is what saved the movie business seven decades ago – a generation of leaders with the imagination to reinvent their industry from the ground up.

We need to reimagine what retail spaces can do and put new thinking and new technologies in play. The tools of reinvention are here. What’s needed now is the right mindset and the will to execute.

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