It's clear that these are the Dark Days of Mass Retailing. Consumers just aren't consuming enough - at least from the retailers' perspective. There are too many stores, too much merchandise. In many areas of the United States, stores keep sprouting like so many wayward dandelions.
It's clear that retailing is way overbuilt. A shakeout could be coming, and it could include a bankruptcy filing by Kmart Corp. Kmart's credit rating has been lowered to junk-bond status by Standard & Poor's Ratings Group.
Few people would want to see Kmart's demise, not Kmart workers, not shoppers-certainly not the many manufacturers that serve the giant discounter.
``Well, that's the American Way; that's the free market,'' a cynic would say. Or perhaps a realist.
This kind of bleak talk permeated the International Housewares Show, held Jan. 14-17 in Chicago. As that sector's first major U.S. trade show each year, the exhibition provides a preview of products you will see in the Kmarts, Wal-Marts and Targets.
At the show, it was common to hear people speculating about Kmart's fate. Many molders are insulated from any direct affect of financial disaster experienced by a retail customer - but prices are coming down.
Rubbermaid Inc., by far the nation's largest plastic housewares molder, revealed Jan. 22 that it is lowering prices on some products. Its competitors reportedly are poised to do the same.
In a true sign of the times, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported Jan. 17 that its quarterly profit declined for the first time in its more than 25 years as a public company. Wal-Mart ads about ``falling prices'' may become all too true.
Let's hope prices don't fall so low they crush the already-slim profit margins in the fierce housewares industry-where mass-merchant buyers play hardball.
According to a retailing trade magazine report, Wal-Mart is planning an ``everyday low-priced,'' $99 VCR, and a 12-cup coffeemaker for as little as $8.
That's fine for consumers, but how low can prices go? Perhaps the entire industry might consider adopting the slogan ``Watch for Falling Profits.''
Consumers play hardball, too. Think about it: How many of us have come to expect deep discounts, or decide to delay purchases until a store goes out of business, and then swoop in to pick the remains off the shelves? We would hope even Wal-Mart would not want to see Kmart to go under. After all, healthy, strong competition also is the American Way.
Closing the doors of such shops puts even more middle-class Americans out of work. That feeds on itself, since middle-class folks are the ones big retailers count on the most.
At the Chicago show, some of the speculation centered on whether the government would, or should, step in if Kmart looks like it's going under.
Let's hope it doesn't get to that. But understand that mass retailing, circa 1996, could be marked by ruin.