I’ve been thinking back to how experiences that used to be so common have shifted over the past couple decades. Some of the changes have been gradual, while others seemed to happen overnight. Here are a few that stick out:
I have fond memories of going to a local dry cleaner with my dad, picking up or dropping off some of his suits, and getting a box of donuts at the shop next door. During my first internships, I stopped by the same dry cleaner to get my work clothes cleaned.
Donut stores are still doing well, as far as I can tell, but the same can’t be said of dry cleaners.
According to a Wall Street Journal article, up to 30% of dry cleaners in the United States have closed. Many of those who closed are likely mom-and-pop businesses, which has increased effects on inequality.
The megatrends of work-from-home and of more-relaxed dress codes across society hurt demand for dry cleaning. It’s quite a shock to an industry that’s been so enduring in living memory.
If you needed electronics parts growing up, you went to Circuit City or Best Buy. It came as a shock to see the local Circuit City take down its sign when the company went out of business back in the Great Recession.
Nowadays, people usually turn to the internet for electronics they need. This often includes Amazon, but Best Buy has managed to thrive as well. By using brick-and-mortar as a “showroom”, price-matching competitors, cleaning up its online website, and with the useful bundling of its “geek squad” repair crew, Best Buy provides a bridge between the useful aspects of tactile buying experience and the convenience of internet ordering and home delivery.
Getting School Staples (at Staples)
Staples was the classic home & office supply store, with shelves piled high of anything you could need to fill a printer, a backpack, or a desk (and you could buy those items in the store as well). In the heyday of these stores, Staples paid over $100 million for the naming rights to the new home of the Los Angeles Lakers: the Staples Center (a name that most fans still call the arena, regardless of its new official name).
Although not dead by a long shot, Staples has fallen from its former glory. It became a private company again in 2017 after getting bought out by a private equity firm.
Among other competitors, Target has really increased its presence across the former school-supplies niche. Parents can go to one place to pick up pencils and backpacks for kids, do some grocery shopping, and get a couple new back-to-school outfits in the clothing section. For those who plan more than 2 days ahead, Amazon offers more options than what a modern Staples, Office Depot, or Office Max might have in stock (e.g. a specific type of printer ink cartridge).
I remember wanting to play the beautiful pianos at Nordstrom as a summer job. Unfortunately, that job disappeared in my area before I could ever apply.
After decades of live music that added a classy ambiance to the giant mall stores, Nordstrom began to bid adieu to its music department starting in the late 2000s. The last known Nordstrom pianist, Joel Baker, departed in 2020.
Rainforest Cafe (Themed Dining)
The Rainforest Cafe is a 90s fever dream. With its sprawling tropical decor inside equally-sprawling shopping malls and a flock of live parrots greeting guests, this restaurant chain burned its image into the minds of many millennials across North America.
These days, Tracy Tree and Chacha the tree frog are scarcely seen, and the parrots (and their keepers) have long since been let go. The location in my hometown closed, as have 36 of the 59 restaurants once in existence. Softened demand for themed restaurants started with wallet-tightening in the Great Recession, and demand for indoor themed dining fell off the cliff with the Covid-19 pandemic; all the animatronic gorillas, pumped-in thunderstorms, and misty wishing ponds couldn’t compete with home delivery.
It’s very possible that we’ll see a resurgence of gaudy themed restaurants once more, but the decline of the old guard (including other brands owned by Rainforest Cafe’s owner, Landry’s) is noticeable across malls in America. Rainforest Cafe isn’t gone yet, though, and the remaining locations keep the legacy alive (as highlighted by a fairly insane road trip to all remaining North America Rainforest Cafes).
There are no jobs left for those who want to be a Nordstrom pianist or a Rainforest Cafe parrot-keeper, nor a Circuit City cashier. Even the long-term viability of a dry-cleaning business has come into question. At the same time, many new jobs have emerged: fans of parrot-keepers flock to TikTok, pianists generate demand for gigs via Instagram, and plant shops are sprouting up to cater to a burgeoning industry (which means more cashiers are needed).
No industry is immune to massive upheavals, and the careers of today may well again become the fads of yesteryear. By coupling this recognition with a healthy dose of flexibility and openness to lifelong learning, we can better position ourselves against uncertainty.