"I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R' Us kid..."
Ahh, that jingle. It's an iconic brand song that stuck through the decades as the lasting memory of the Toys R' Us company. Sadly, for 31,000 employees, hundreds of cities and municipalities, and millions of former customers, a memory is all that's left of the toy giant, after the organization filed for bankruptcy and has begun liquidating its assets - most notably to Amazon. While many people think the e-tailer was responsible for killing this beloved company, they'd be wrong.
I never spent a lot of time at Toys R' Us growing up. My family always spent more time in malls, where the ubiquitous toy store there was Kay Bee. I still have fond memories of that bright, BRIGHT, pink carpet and yellow walls, covered in toys, as I wandered down the aisle to scout my next Transformer or Lego set. Ah, those were the days...
But I digress. With more and more retail giants closing down, I thought I'd take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts on who I think are the next companies to close up shop, and why. This has nothing to do with debt, assets, or balance sheets - this is pure speculation, gut feelings, and some logic sprinkled in.
Sears was quasi dead to me after they vacated the tallest building in the US in Chicago, leaving some obscure, British based insurance company with the naming rights. To someone on the east coast, its the equivalent of the Yankees getting bored, leaving to go play in Utica, and then letting the Red Sox move in and call it Nomar Pahk. No - just...no.
Anyways, Sears has been on life support as a company for a long time, and they're an easy target. I hate to pile on, but the last time I went into a Sears, I was horridly disappointed. The racks looked terribly uncared for, staff were wandering around or chatting to each other - and while this may be indicative of one store's management rather than the company as a whole, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Given the extremely competitive landscape for retail, Sears lack of quality service is just going to continue to cause the company to plummet until it eventually hits rock bottom.
Look, I love - LOVE - shopping at Kohls. It's got everything a traditional department store has, but just less of it, and at that mid-range price and quality point that services the middle class with aplomb. I've never had a bad experience shopping at Kohls, and I always find 1-2 items that just last in my wardrobe rotation for years.
Of course, that mid-range price is exactly why I'm afraid they're going to be hit VERY hard, very soon. In 2016, the company closed 18 stores and while they're doing ok for now, they're a store that services the middle of the market - and that market has been shrinking for years. It's a well known fact that the middle-incomes have been declining in this country for years, leaving low-wage earning baristas and service workers and high paying tech/business professionals as the remaining customers. Someone earning $30k a year doesn't have the income to drop $50 on a pair of pants, and the person earning $300k wants something nicer. Yes, the middle isn't gone yet, but it's being squeezed hard - and with Target rapidly expanding and improving their home goods - Kohls may be next in line to go belly up.
3. Darden Restaurants/Other Suburban Chain Restaurants*
You may not have heard of Darden, but you absolutely have heard of their brands - Olive Garden, LongHorn, Capital Grille - these and other suburban staples like Outback, TGI Fridays, and Applebees are synonymous with average to above average dining experiences at reasonable prices, and family oriented. Some people may get wasted at these establishments' bars - but on the average night, it's about the families.
And - that's kinda why these and other chains are suffering. People can blame Millenials and their avocado toast all they want - but it's not consumer tastes and preferences that's dooming these brands - though that does certainly have some impact. The fact is that young families, while they exist in the suburbs, are increasingly being found in urban areas - where these restaurants aren't. Sure, not all suburban diners are families of 4 - but if you're out on a date night, do you really want to take your significant other, or group of friends to an Olive Garden? Now, that asterisk was a caveat, whereby, I don't really think these restaurants are all going to go away. Yes, Applebees and IHOP have had major store closures recently, and they are a major reason why I've put this group on my list.
However, if there's one thing I've learned about business, its that companies pivot or die. Some of these brands will likely die, but there's a LOT of floorspace these companies either own outright or have long term leases on. I don't see them all closing up because their target market moved a few miles away. I see a re-branding and unveiling of new concepts in old locations. Much like Seasons 52 (a Darden Company) arose to fill the gap of a dining experience that appeals to affluent men in their late 50s, so too will there be a brand that is designed to target the remaining people in their early-late 30s who want to still feel young and cool, but can't be bothered to drive to the city and certainly aren't going clubbing or bar hopping.
Denny's, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesdays - these may all eventually wrap up their brands - but the holding companies will certainly bring out new concepts in the same spaces.
Hello out there! As mentioned a few weeks ago, I wanted to start highlighting people in the planning world that are usually the kind of folks that are a bit below the radar when it comes to public-facing interviews and promotional activities. These aren't CEOs, Presidents, or other high-ranking members of the planning world, and as such, they aren't often sought out by the media for their input - much to our collective detriment!
This week, our conversation is with Christina Arlt, Senior Planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Christina felt like a perfect choice to be the first in what I hope to be a long running series on this blog, what with impeccable credentials and connections (Penn Grad, taught my workshop class...). As mentioned in previous posts, I'm always looking for suggestions for who next to interview, so if you know of anyone - or you yourself are interested - please leave me a comment in the comments section below. Thanks!
Hi Christina! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions for the blog. So, my first question - what made you interested in planning?
My interest in planning was sparked by a sidebar about Pierre L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C. in my 8th grade math textbook.
That's pretty random - how'd a sidebar in a math book lead you into the planning world?
Up until that point, it hadn't occurred to me that anyone was "responsible" for designing cities and thinking about how they grow and change. So I decided to learn more about urban planning as a career.
Crazy how inspiration strikes us in the most unlikely of places. So, what made you want to join the organization you’re at now?
I interned at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) when I was in graduate school, so I was familiar with the organization and the people who worked here before I applied for a full-time position. The job appealed to me because I would get to work on a lot of different projects and learn about new topics on a regular basis.
Funny, I got my first job at The Enterprise Center the same way. Moving on to some more reflective questions - what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 or 10 years ago?
So much of planning is about communication and meeting facilitation, but that's not something that planning programs spend a lot of time teaching. Learning to lead a public meeting is a definitely a skill that requires practice.
I completely agree. I definitely remember making that same comment during my grad school days. So, if you hadn't gone into planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into?
I like helping people learn so I would probably be either a college professor or a librarian. It would allow me to connect people with the information and resources they need to be successful.
Probably no coincidence then that you're still teaching Workshop at Penn! So what do you find is the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part of my job is learning something new every day. Recently I worked on a project where I got to interview police, fire, and facilities professionals from New York, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. I didn't know much about police and fire facilities before I started the project, so I learned a great deal about the challenges police and fire departments face and was able to share this information with the City of Philadelphia as they explore rightsizing their own police and fire facilities.
That does sound interesting, and certainly relevant with municipal budgets under the strain they're in at the moment. Follow up question - what aspect of your work do you find the least interesting?
Probably the administrative tasks, like timesheets, requisitions, and expense reports that need to be completed but sometimes feel like they're pulling my attention away from the "real" work of planning.
I can feel my readers nodding in agreement. So you seem to have worked on a lot of different projects, can you please describe for me a time when you were really proud of something you worked on?
My colleagues and I worked on a project looking at land use and zoning around the stations of the Glassboro-Camden Line (GCL), a proposed rail extension in southern New Jersey. The proposed route had numerous stops in affluent suburbs but seemed to skip over certain neighborhoods in Camden, whose residents would have directly benefited from reliable transit service to get them to work, school, and medical appointments. We recommended adding an additional stop in Camden. Although the train line hasn't been built yet, it's rewarding to know that the stop will eventually expand opportunities for residents.
And even getting to that recommendation is a big step in the process to getting funding for implementation, which is often the last, if not hardest hurdle. That brings me to my next question - given the various funding and practical challenges out there for our field, do you think the Philadelphia region is a good place right now to be a planner?
I think Philadelphia is a great place to be a planner right now! With the city's population increasing in the last ten years or so, there's a great energy here. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission is wrapping up the district plans for Philadelphia 2035, DVRPC just released our latest long range plan, Connections 2045, and we've had tons of big events (the Pope's visit, the NFL draft, the Democratic National Convention, and the Eagles Super Bowl parade) that have brought international attention to the city. We are the first World Heritage City in the United States and we're on the short list for Amazon's HQ2. The Water Department is going great things with their Green City, Clean Waters plan, and The William Penn Foundation is investing in clean water and our regional trail system. So whether it's land use, transportation, community development, economic development, or environmental planning, there's something of interest to every type of planner!
That's refreshing to hear, and clearly there's momentum in Philly! Of course, part of our role as planners is to push proverbial boulders uphill. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think equity is a big challenge that we don't talk about enough. I'm especially concerned about the intersection of equity and algorithms. Data plays a huge role in how we allocate resources. Planners need to pay attention to how decisions are being made to ensure that they don't replicate past inequities.
What kind of decisions are you referring to?
For example, decisions about how funding formulas are written or how program criteria are determined - especially when those processes use big data or automation. I heard some really good interviews on the radio lately with the authors of books like "Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor" and "Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy."
That seems very relevant in the age of Big Data/Open Data that we are in the middle of right now. So, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, I'll leave you with one fun final question – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
I joined a Cookbook Club at the Free Library of Philadelphia. I met new friends, made new recipes, and it helped me achieve my 2017 New Year's resolution, which was to make one new recipe per week every week for the entire year!
You can follow Christina on Twitter at @ChristinaArlt
Have something to contribute to the conversation? Comment below!
Sorry folks, the winter blast pushed my schedule all out of whack, so I wasn't able to get stuff together to post this week. However, next week I'll have my first interview! My guest will be Christina Arlt of DVRPC. Check back next week to see what she has to say about Planning, Philadelphia, and cooking classes at the library!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia