The retail reckoning that’s been turbocharged by the Covid-19 pandemic shows little sign of letting up: Marquee department stores like J.C. Penney and Lord & Taylor and mall stalwarts like J. Crew have declared bankruptcy; titans like Macy’s and Gap are looking wan. Even with lockdowns (mostly) ended, foot traffic is often at a whisper.
But in certain, perhaps less flashy, corners of the retail world, there’s a different picture: determined bargain-hunters combing through the ever-changing merch mix at a discounter like T.J. Maxx, dead set on tracking down, say, a Calphalon skillet or a pair of Lucky jeans for 40% off.
For off-price retailers, shopping is a real-world experience that has as much to do with the hunt as the kill — and the hunt happens in the physical world. This flies in the face of the savvy conventional wisdom, embraced by the likes of Nike and Lululemon — even Starbucks — that surviving the pandemic requires pivoting toward an ever-heavier emphasis on e-commerce.
Like all retailers, the off-price chains took a major hit during the lockdown period that started mid-March and lasted in many markets into early June. But when stores reopened, the off-price consumer was ready.
But off-price retailers like TJX Corp (owner of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and HomeGoods), Ross, and Burlington are practically living in an alternate reality. This category has resisted any meaningful embrace of e-commerce throughout the internet era, even as pretty much every other consumer-facing business scrambled to offer an online alternative. This isn’t because off-price chains are Luddite businesses, or in denial about the future. It’s because they believe that, even post-pandemic, their customer isn’t looking for a digital option; they want the real-world thing. And so far, this focus on the in-person shopping experience — even amid a pandemic — is working surprisingly well.