This is the second in an ongoing series of stories about Kern County's changing retail landscape.

For more than 20 years, the Oreck Clean Home Center sold and serviced vacuum cleaners and other appliances from a small shop at Coffee Road and Stockdale Highway. It pulled through the Great Recession and, for a time, was one of the brand's top-selling locations on the West Coast.

Then customers started shopping online, first for appliances, later for parts, too. When they realized they could buy what they needed for less money online, many came to view the store mainly as a place to get their appliances serviced.

But that kind of heavy-on-service, light-on-sales business model didn't pencil out for store owner Lori Miller. Unwilling to risk another five-year, half-million-dollar lease, she closed the store for good on April 30.

"People will do whatever they have to do to save that $10.47, you know what I mean?" she said.

This same scenario is playing out at shopping centers across the country. As more consumers turn to the convenience and cost-savings available on the Internet, storefronts big and small are going vacant.

A growing trend

The trend isn't slowing down, either. It's speeding up.

The number of U.S. store closures announced so far this year has already surpassed 2018's year-end total, according to global data-tracking and advisory firm Coresight Research.

It said Friday that 6,150 stores were slated to be shut sometime this year, almost 5 percent more than closed during all of last year. It predicted this year's total could reach 12,000, nearly double last year's tally.

Meanwhile, the number of announced store openings, 2,671, was about 18 percent below 2018's count, the company reported.

'A transformational shift'

Coresight senior analyst John Mercer said three factors are driving the closures, starting with this year's spate of bankruptcies among nationwide retailers. He noted brands are reshaping their fleet of stores, and that the growth in e-commerce is forcing chains to "rebalance their physical footprint."

The problem, he said by email, is not so much that one segment of the population favors certain stores over others. Nor is it the case that one tier of stores is gaining ground over another.

What it really comes down to, he asserted, is that some retailers are finding a way to offer their customers something unique, while others are not.

"At the end of the spectrum, consumers can get what they want without having to compromise on the experience," he wrote. "In other words, we're seeing a transformational shift from mediocre retailers to better retailers, more niche retailers."

Empty storefronts

The physical effects of these kinds of changes are visible at commercial centers across Bakersfield.

At least two Payless ShoeSource stores in the city have closed in recent months. So has the Catherines women's clothing store on Ming Avenue. A sign at the Family Dollar store north of Highway 178 along Mount Vernon Avenue says the store will soon close.

Two stores at The Outlets at Tejon — a Charlotte Russe and a Gymboree Outlet — now stand empty. At Valley Plaza, a Crazy 8, a Gymboree and a Charlotte Russe recently closed, and a sign at the mall's Payless ShoeSource says that location will soon be gone. The shopping center's Sears, once a main attraction, closed months ago.

On the outskirts of Valley Plaza, LifeWay Christian Store is getting ready to shut down by June. The bookstore and church supply store's closure after more than five years at that location is part of a chain-wide retreat in the face of stiff challenges from e-commerce, as detailed by news organization Baptist Press.

'Accelerated rate of erosion'

The store's Nashville-based owner, LifeWay Christian Resources, saw its operating deficit balloon from $2.3 million in 2010 to more than $35 million in 2017, BP reported, citing the retailer's audited financial reports.

As its losses escalated, the company sold a conference center in 2013 and a 14.5-acre campus in Nashville two years later. In January, BP reported, company President Thom Rainer sent employees an email announcing conditions had worsened further.

"We prayed and hoped that our investments in and commitments to the LifeWay stores would prove fruitful. That just has not been the case," he wrote, according to a BP report a LifeWay spokeswoman did not dispute.

"To the contrary, we not only continue to see an erosion in the brick-and-mortar channel, we have seen an accelerated erosion in recent months," Rainer reportedly wrote. "It was our hope that greater traffic would result in greater sales, and that with our expense reductions and product cost savings, we would be able to offset sales declines. That hope has not been realized with the declines we have seen since September."

In March, LifeWay announced it would close each of its 170 stores by the end of the year as it puts more focus on its online channels, which it said are "experiencing strong growth."

Convenience wins, but not always

Local shoppers told The Californian they find online shopping more convenient, in many cases, than going to a local shopping center. But sometimes, depending on what they're looking to buy, there's no substitute for a quick visit to the mall.

Schoolteacher Amy Ming, for example, said she goes online for her purchases about half the time she's looking to buy something other than groceries, which she always shops for in person.

She said time savings is her main motivation for buying from e-commerce giant Amazon. But if she's shopping for a gift that might have to be returned, she said, Valley Plaza is often her best bet.

Another reason to buy at a physical store instead of an online retailer, she said, is the chance to support a small boutique employing local residents. Somewhere like Bella at the Marketplace, she said.

"They work hard and they should have my business before I go online," she said, referring to the boutique at The Marketplace.

Trusted adviser

Jay Thompson, who works as a business consultant with Cal State Bakersfield's Small Business Development Center, said the changes evident in the success of businesses like Amazon have affected many small businesses. But he asserted it's not necessarily a losing battle.

His main advice to store owners is to become their customers' most dependable counselor.

"I think it's service. It all boils down to that," he said. "People want a trusted advisor in whatever they're looking at, whether they're purchasing a car or purchasing services or commodities.

"They want to feel like they're special," he added. "And the client is special (and) needs to be taken care of."

Next: An examination of how online retailers like Amazon shape consumer buying habits.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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