Have you noticed more retail vacancies? There have been 6,700 store closings announced in the US in 2017– more than in all of 2008 during the financial crisis.

Some of the largest bankruptcies this year have included well known brands including Toys R’ Us, Payless, and Radio Shack.

CB Insights concludes, “The great retail apocalypse of 2017 shows what happens to industries that don’t adapt. At first change happens slowly around the edges, then the bottom drops out.”

What’s driving the retail bloodbath? Two words: tech and Amazon.

The first online transactions were made in 1994 (the year WWW made magazine covers), Amazon launched its online site in 1995. Two decades of steady growth and by 2016 51% of purchases were made online.

“Consumers are simply becoming accustomed to on-demand, friction-free, no-hassle shopping experiences. Old-line retail incumbents are being overwhelmed by interrelated trends in retail tech, online shopping, and direct-to-consumer models,” explains CB Insights.

A conspiracy of technologies made online shopping ubiquitous: cheap access devices, inexpensive cloud computing (Amazon owns that space too), and targeted marketing driven by machine learning. Behind the scene logistics got better.

There’s also a generational shift underway. While  51% Americans prefer to shop online, it’s the younger generations leading the way: 67% of Millennials and 56% of Gen Xers prefer to shop online rather than in-store; 41% of Baby Boomers and 28% of Seniors will click to purchase.

But all is not lost for traditional retailers. Ranked by volume, leading US retailers are

Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, The Home Depot, CVS, Walgreens, and then Amazon. New hybrid formats are emerging. Traditional retailers are buying up online merchants. Hudson’s Bay Co. bought Gilt Groupe, Nordstrom acquired Haute Look, and Bed Bath & Beyond purchased furniture site One Kings Lane. Wal-Mart bought Jet.com, vintage apparel merchant Modcloth and pants e-tailer Bonobos. Amazon joined the hybrid trend by acquiring Whole Foods and opening a handful of bookstores.

Directionally Correct

Riding the World Wide Web hype of the late 1990s, dozens of well funded online retailers were launched in every category (remember Pets.com and Webvan?). There were predictions of the rapid demise of traditional retail but the dirty little secret was that no one was selling much online. The market reached a fever pitch early in 2000 before the dot com crash which spelled the end for most of those early startups.

Trend spotters (like me) pride themselves on pattern recognition piecing together clues about possible futures. It’s not hard spot directional trends but it’s really hard to pin down time frames.

In the 1970s, Roy Amara, president of Institute for the Future summarized the timing problem with tech forecasting: we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Those online grocery insights that Webvan brought to market back in 1996 were spot on. It was just two decades too early–customers weren’t ready, the logistics were hard, and the tech wasn’t great.

What Does it Mean for Education?

This tale of retail transition suggests two lessons for EdLeaders. First, your internal change initiatives (like personalized learning) will probably take longer than you think. You’re out in front of demand (i.e., parents don’t know they want competency-based learning), some teachers aren’t on the bus, there’s lots of gravity in the system and EdTech tools are still pretty kluge.

It feels like we’ve hit a tipping point of interest in personalized learning but the degree of difficulty and number of barriers mean slow sledding in most places. At some point in the next five years, platforms and school networks will make it easier to personalize learning.

In the meantime, the situation suggests simplifying, working in phases, and over investing in professional learning.

Second, like retailers, you’re probably facing more competition and it’s likely to increase– perhaps quickly (from charter and online schools, dual enrollment and CTE programs, and lots of informal learning when and where #CompetencyEd and ESA kick in). You may feel like you’re leading the JC Penny of education–a really dated format that customers are fleeing given the opportunity.

In most states, there is no new money coming to K-12 education and in many areas enrollments are flat or declining–not a pleasant combination for school district administrators. You’ve done the easy stuff and cost-cutting get’s really hard from here. We identified 12 functional areas where school district may find opportunities to boost efficiency and effectiveness.

But, like JC Penny, you can’t cost cut your way into competitiveness. You’ll have to lead a transformation and probably do it on the cheap. Invite the community into a conversation about what students should learn and identify specific experiences that develop those outcomes. Join or develop networks of like-minded schools to develop new student-centered learning models–this work is too hard to do it alone.

Lay the groundwork for transformation. Change may be slow at first but in the long run (as tools and models improve) you may be pleasantly surprised.

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