What happened to department stores?

Department stores, once a symbol of the American middle class, have been in decline for years, as have the malls they anchor in communities across the United States. Last year, upscale Barneys and the nation’s oldest department store Lord & Taylor went bankrupt and announced plans to close all of their establishments.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which shocked the economy, hitting low- and middle-income Americans hardest by forcing them out of work and into more debt, with little to no relief in sight. The crisis has also temporarily closed most non-essential physical retail stores and kept people at home for months, giving them more reasons than ever to shop online at e-commerce giants like Amazon or from the smaller direct-to-consumer brands whose ads follow us all. on the Internet.

As we approach the end of 2020, the prognosis for the U.S. department store is bleaker than ever. The reasons go far beyond Covid-19 or even the continued rise in online shopping, and have more to do with trends in the US economy that have shrunk the middle class while making the already rich richer. This is why the decline of these retail giants must be taken into account. They employ hundreds of thousands of people and occupy a disproportionate space in our communities; their gradual disappearance, as well as what replaces them, tells us something about our destination.

—Samantha Oltman, editor-in-chief of Recode

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