As Younkers closes, is Main Street next?

Listen to the podcast segment "Farewell to Younkers" from the April 21, 2018 episode

Younkers stores will be gone by August: The parent company of the Midwestern retailer has sold to a liquidator, so by August 31st, the stores will be no more.

So here we have it: Another retailer dismantled by the new realities of consumer expectations.

I drove by the Younkers at Valley West Mall the other night, and liquidation sale signs are already in the windows. It's become a familiar sight as one retail chain after another has gone belly-up. But this one is a little different, given that Younkers was the "home team" for Des Moines department-store retail for more than a century.

Like many long-timers in Des Moines, I remember when the downtown Younkers closed in 2005. It seemed like a warning sign at the time. People seemed to think it marked a sort of death of downtown -- but as the last decade or so has shown, downtown is better than ever now. It took a lot of investment and effort, but the city has thrived even without a downtown retail anchor.

The pain in retail right now is very real. I worry a lot about communities that are mainly retail centers here in Iowa. There is a real concentration of retail sales taking place -- and it's been ongoing since the 1980s. It's nothing new, of course. You can't change people's macro-scale choices: We're urbanizing and many of us are making more of our purchases online.

It's not just about prices, either -- people are often willingly paying more for convenience online. They're also paying for customized experiences and products: Services like StitchFix, offering customized subscription fashion, or on sites like Etsy, offering customized hand-made goods.

Retail has to know why it exists, and whether there's a real reason for the doors to stay open. Clearly, for Younkers and for many others, the reason has disappeared. That's certainly going to elicit some nostalgia from folks who have fond memories of stores that are closing their doors.

But what we need to think about as Iowans is how the continued retail trends could mean big changes ahead for towns and cities, too. Retail sales are often part of a snowball -- strength attracts even more strength, which is why we've seen tremendous growth around the Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines, and why so much investment is going into the new Outlets of Des Moines in Altoona. But there's only so much spending to go around, and if even the mighty Younkers can fall, we shouldn't dismiss the prospect that towns depending heavily on the retail trade might need to look at some backup plans if they want to survive without being hollowed out.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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