Memo: The Roaring Twenties

Chronocentrism is the misconception that the period in which someone is living is paramount, while historical periods pale in comparison. By suggesting an historical importance of the present, it slights the past at the expense of potential lessons derived from it. But a chronocentric mindset overlooks what can be learned from the past, and where we sit now, there is much to be derived from the historical period that precedes our present by exactly one century. It can be summarized with one simple phrase.

The Roaring Twenties weren’t everyone’s. The Roaring Twenties will not be everyone’s.

Despite a booming economy, swift urbanization, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagery of old money’s clash with ascendant wealth, the 1920s did not belong to everyone. The upper 10% of society provided the period’s reputation of grandeur. The next 20% prescribed to the aspiration of it all. And the following 70% watched from afar, resenting the careless consumerism and hedonism of the time. They remained in ruin as a result of global conflict, pandemic, inflation, and post traumatic stress. The two global catastrophes influenced a bifurcation of America’s wealth that resembled the Gilded Age that preceded it 60 years prior.

In Fitzgerald’s 1931 essay Echoes of the Jazz Age, he spoke of the time as “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure”:

The whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of choir girls. […] Even when you were broke, you didn’t worry about money, because it was in such profusion around you.

Though 1918 and 1919 are marked by the plague that killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide, it was a relatively stable economic period for the United States. The wartime economy was to thank for both. The influenza outbreak of 1918 coincided with the final year of The Great War, one of the first times in recorded history that soldiers were shipped en masse to other countries. First recorded at Fort Riley, Kansas in March of 1918, 24 countries marked cases by October of that year. Global conflict exacerbated the transmission of the virus and the lack of care that many received due to shortages in available medical professionals. Like an accelerant, the free flow of soldiers contributed to the epidemic. [2PM, 1]

The 1920s penchant for consumption, the economic policies that rewarded it, and the political alliances that encouraged that penchant laid the groundwork for a kindred present.

The same war supplied a meaningful boost to an idling manufacturing economy. And despite a depression that gutted that economy in 1920, the next nine years would see an unprecedented period of prosperity. When the slump ended, Americans welcomed change. Manufacturers pivoted away from wartime wares to market goods to a thriving upper-strata of an economic base that welcomed convenience and the novelty of consumerism. Social events thrived, both legally and illegally. And thanks to newer technologies like the automobile, travel reached its zenith.

Fast forward 100 years and the desire to rebuild, consume, and socialize has already begun to embolden an unlikely economy.

Once pandemics end, often there is a period in which people seek out extensive social interaction, and which [Dr Nicholas] Christakis predicts will be a second “roaring twenties” just as after the 1918 flu pandemic. [2]

Three vaccinations (AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer) have buoyed hope for normalcy. Air travel reached a daily peak on December 27 with nearly 1.3 million people traveling in a single day according to the TSA. It’s no longer war that is greasing the wheels of manufacturing machinery and large scale distribution. Today’s engine is the discretionary income of the haves and a Parasite economy powered by millions of underemployed have-nots. The 1920s penchant for consumption, the economic policies that rewarded it, and the political alliances that encouraged it laid the groundwork for a kindred present. According to Mastercard’s recent SpendingPulse report:

Holiday retail sales excluding automotive and gasoline increased 3% this expanded holiday season, running from October 11 through December 24. Notably, online sales grew 49% compared to 2019, the preliminary insights show. [3]

The direct-to-consumer industry has served as a leading indicator for how the greater economy will change. For instance, the surge in online shopping has been a boon to retailers.

American consumers turned the holiday season on its head, redefining ‘home for the holidays’ in a uniquely 2020 way. They shopped from home for the home, leading to record e-commerce growth. [3]
But this growth comes at a price, which will be paid in the cost of reverse logistics. The operations that encompass the return or reuse of products is a growing expense for retailers. The National Retail Federation anticipated that holiday sales would increase as much as 5.2% to $766.7 billion in seasonal sales. But the trade group is also anticipating up to $101 billion worth of goods sold during the holiday season to be returned in January. This represents 13% of merchandise.

According to Narvar, shoppers are due to return twice as many items when compared to this same season in 2019. This presents the first true market opportunity for the Roaring Twenties to course correct for an ailing industry. The first roar, which I’ll unpack here, is a resurgent suburban retail real estate market.

The Roaring Twenties of the 20th Century was a boom period in new construction, new infrastructure, deferred spending, and new forms of art. The Roaring Twenties of this century will see a similar boom in new construction, high speed internet and commerce adoption, deferred spending, and creator-driven dynamism.

 

The upper 10% of 1920, as written about by Fitzgerald, resembles the upper 30% of society in 2020: an expanded subset of America that climbed beyond the middle-class by a mixture of well-paying  salaries, deferred compensation, and savvy investments. Despite a pandemic, cities like Houston, Miami, Dallas, and Austin feature the region’s top malls surrounded by luxury cars. Customers carry shopping bags bearing the marks of many of the finest brands in retail. Nearby, four- and five-star hotels bustle with first-floor dining. And just next door, the valet lines of top restaurants look like car shows. The Twenties won’t belong to everyone. But for the fortunate, the boom will resemble the past.

But for many of America’s malls, even a number of the “Class A” facilities peppered throughout America’s upper-class suburbs, there is a vulnerability that did not exist until recently. Retailers are shuttering and commercial vacancies are accumulating. And with those vacancies a current problem is met with a new solution. Simon Property Group has long courted Amazon as a potential suitor for a growing number of shuttered retail stores and movie theaters.

Amazon’s growth and healthy balance sheet would make it a reliable tenant at a time when most retail business has been waylaid by the pandemic. Simon, which owns 204 properties in the US, has had to contend with a ramp-up in retail tenant closures in recent years that has accelerated during Covid-19. [4]

As of April of 2020, there was close to 10 billion square feet of industrial space dedicated to warehousing logistics, according to data from research firm Statista. Historically, close to 30% of eCommerce orders are returned, a number that rises during the holiday rush. In comparison, only 8-10% of in-store purchases are returned.

As malls become desperate for new business, reverse logistics providers are due to fill the demand. According to CBRE, 400 million square feet will be needed over the next five years to account for the surging demand of online returns. This all leads to resurgent interest in suburban retail real estate.

Earlier this month, Amazon announced customers can return items at 500 Whole Foods Market stores without a box or shipping label. Amazon already had a returns partnership with Kohl’s. Amazon shoppers also can return items at UPS locations, in some cases without packing them up. Returns service Happy Returns partnered with FedEx this fall to let shoppers return items from brands like Everlane, Rothy’s and Steve Madden at 2,000 FedEx locations with no box or shipping label. Happy Returns previously had about 600 locations, which were mostly at malls and retailers like Paper Source and Cost Plus World Market. [5]

The apprehension that once faced mall developers like Simon, Macerich, and Brookfield would be eased by the presence of reverse logistics companies like Happy Returns, Loop, and existing marketplaces like Amazon who currently process returns through industrial warehouse leases. Not only would a reverse logistics presence provide new foot traffic in resurgent developments and urban centers, it may begin to account for the shortfall in physical space required to accept the volume of returns that will break yearly records from here on out.

January’s “Returnageddon” will reveal that returning products through a Whole Foods or FedEx kiosks may overrun those locations in ways that are difficult to project. Eventually, market leaders like Amazon and Ebay will look to malls for the newest two-way outposts. This isn’t exclusively an enterprise problem. Even the reverse logistics software solutions like Happy Returns and Loop will require dedicated space – by the millions of square feet – to account for a volume that few in the industry were prepared for.

There is precedent for a post pandemic boom for the higher strata of income and wealth. When you visit a mall five years from now, they won’t be for everyone. The developments that last will combine luxury retail with dedicated experiences for reverse logistics tailored to invite high-value eCommerce customers. For a technology that once penalized the mall retail industry, eCommerce benefiting these spaces would be a welcomed change. If history is any indication, the following years will see a period of advancement. For a nation of impassioned consumers, we may finally see two factions of industry finally begin to benefit the other after years of opposition. It wouldn’t be the first time that a consumer economy roared after a pandemic. The French called it “Années Folles” or “The Crazy Years.”

Report by Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM

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