This is the first in an ongoing series of stories about Kern County's changing retail landscape.
It's a contrast that's hard to miss: At a time when tenants are needed to fill three major shopping centers in Bakersfield, the kind of stores that might fit the bill are scaling back.
Department stores Sears and JC Penney, home furnishings retailers Bed Bath & Beyond and Pier 1 Imports, intimate-wear seller Victoria's Secret, furniture chain Z Gallerie — these and many more companies with a presence nationwide announced earlier this year they plan to shutter numerous locations.
The closures, ironically coming at a time of when the national economy continues to expand, result in large part from shifting consumer habits. More people are buying products online, forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to reconsider their sales and expansion strategies.
Meanwhile, the biggest symbol of change in Kern County retailing — a 2.6 million-square-foot distribution e-commerce giant Amazon is building just north of Meadows Field Airport — appears on track this year to employ more than 1,000 local workers whose efforts will accommodate the continuing shift toward online shopping.
Are these signs that shopping centers will disappear from Bakersfield's commercial landscape? Will prime real estate set aside for shopping sit empty as consumers stay at home huddled around their computers awaiting their next front-door product delivery?
Probably not, say observers and industry representatives. They emphasize people still want to shop, just not in the same way they used to.
The importance of balance
The consensus is that the challenge facing smart retailers is to balance their e-commerce and brick-and-mortar strategies, to offer people the options people want when they want them — adapt or continue to lose ground.
"Bricks and mortar is not dying. It's a changing environment and retailers need to keep up," said Bakersfield commercial real estate broker Garret Tuckness, senior vice president of retail at Colliers International.
At the largest retail chains, adjustments are already happening, and fast. National retailers including Walmart and Target have rolled out entirely new modes of shopping, allowing customers to choose and pay for products online that can then be picked up at nearby stores.
The focus is increasingly on convenience and immediacy. Recognizing that consumers have less time these days for shopping, retailers are making it easier for consumers to order goods online and then drive to their local store to pick up their orders without ever having to unbuckle their seat belt.
Tiffany Wilson, director of communications at Walmart, said the company wants to make sure its customers have choices, whether that means having goods delivered to their homes, ordering online and picking them up at a nearby store, or shopping in a more traditional sense.
Another of Walmart's priorities is immediacy.
"No one has time for anything," Wilson said. "Shopping, I think, used to be a great pastime …. We don't have time for that anymore."
Target spokeswoman Jill Lewis said people still love to come to the company's brick-and-mortar stores. Some prefer dropping by only to pick up goods they ordered online, she said, while others want items sent to their front door.
"Whether guests are placing Order Pickup orders through Target's website or choosing Drive Up through the Target app, our busy guests tell us time and again how much they love the ease and convenience of these services," she wrote in an email.
She added that in any case, it's important that the chain have physical stores nearby to serve as distribution centers.
"By fulfilling digital orders from stores," she noted, "Target is able to serve guests faster and drive down costs."
Another way the online and shopping center worlds are merging is a new initiative by Kohl's offering customers the opportunity to come to its stores to drop off products they want to return to Amazon. The service is free of charge and customers don't need to pack the returns for shipping.
New approach for developers
At the same time, shopping center developers are changing the way they design their projects.
While traditional, store-based malls can still draw large crowds, many newer centers are looking to attract entertainment tenants such as movie theaters, as well as spas and other services customers can't get at home.
That's at least partly the idea with two of the tree major shopping centers proposed in Bakersfield. Developers of the Bakersfield Commons planned for the city's northwest and Bakersfield Gateway further south have talked about bringing in entertainment options and other experience-oriented tenants.
Tuckness, the retail specialist at Colliers International, said he is keeping busy lately as national retail chains work to maintain a physical presence. The difference is they're being more cautious and shrinking the amount of space they dedicate to brick-and-mortar stores.
He doesn't view the delays encountered by proposed shopping centers as any kind of ominous sign. More likely, he said, the setbacks reflect challenges specific to each project.
His own experience is that people prefer to buy some things online and other things at a physical store.
"If I'm going to go buy my son a baseball glove," he said, "I want to go and check it out."
The message to retailers, he said, is that they need to balance investments in e-commerce with refinement of their brick-and-mortar shopping experience. He suggested it would be easy to go too far one direction.
"In my opinion, if retailers only focused on their online presence and didn't spend any money on brick and mortar," he said, "they're not going to stay relevant."
Next: A deep dive at struggling national retailers and which ones might close in 2019.