Fast Company

Why Fast Is in Retail Fashion

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the hamburger, depending on whom you believe. An invention that mirrored a major shift in human behavior, the humble burger has come to symbolize our preference for a faster retail experience.

This now world-famous quick meal was reportedly inspired by a harried customer who wanted to eat on the run. But it took until 1921 for White Castle founders Walter Anderson and Billy Ingram to put the "fast" in fast food. Their innovations included standardized cooking procedures and the use of cardboard containers to ease transportation.

The rest is history. Worldwide, more than 15 billion burgers are eaten annually. McDonald's stopped boasting how many billions of hamburgers it had served in 1992... at 90 billion.

What could propel such a common food item to astronomic sales levels? Fast food is tailor made for a mobile society, especially one that lives and dies by the automobile. The two joined forces in 1951 when San Diego's Jack in the Box opened the nation's first drive-in restaurant, doing away with even the need to leave one's car.

The need for speed quickly spread to other retail sectors, as well. Supermarkets added carts and fast checkout lanes. Malls gained instant photo kiosks. Drugstores began selling food. Department stores hired personal shoppers. Meanwhile, consumers had discovered yet another timesaver: shopping by catalog. In 1974, catalog sales hit $6 billion. Ten years later, the figure had quintupled as FedEx had begun its ascent. Catalogers generated $133 billion in sales last year, according to the DMA.

But buyers, ever harried, wanted to shop faster still. That was made possible by the Internet. From nearly zero sales in 1985, online consumer transactions will rise to $92 billion in 2004, excluding travel, according to Forrester Research. The trend points to a future where most merchandise will be purchased online.

Doing more in less time is also visible in other purchase patterns. In 2002, 23% of mall shoppers browsed compared with 37% in 2000, according to ICSC Research Quarterly. Malls now handle about 14% of total retail sales, or $308 billion in 2003, according to retail consultant Paco Underhill.

The acceleration of the sales cycle is also evident in the rapid spread of the "pocket bike" -- those tiny motorcycles whose sudden popularity led one retailer to observe in The New York Times: "We never heard of these six months ago, but now they are our best-selling product."

That something not on a retailer's radar screen could become a bestseller in six months is indicative of how quickly trends are now propelled, particularly by the Internet.

Being a "quicker picker-upper" is what made fashion retailers H&M, Mango, and Zara successful. These European chains thrive by practicing the new science of "fast fashion," compressing product development cycles as much as six times.

Now retailers are increasingly turning to "pop-up stores," temporary retail establishments that can cater to any fast-moving whim. J.C. Penney, Maxim, and Target are just some of the companies that have opened pop-up stores.

How does one profit from fast retailing? If you're in real estate, you might want to revisit those lengthy leases and figure out how to ride the pop-up store wave. If you're in software, consider developing new services that improve retail throughput. Help is needed everywhere, as anyone who has seen those inscrutable transaction screens retailers grapple with will attest.

That leisurely "Hootersville" pace (from that '60s TV show Petticoat Junction), which turned Macy's into a $1 billion company in 134 years, is gone. Replacing it is a revved-up shopper psyche ready to lift the fortunes of the next Amazon.com, a retailer that reached that plateau in just four years.

As Ellen DeGeneres pointedly remarks to an imaginary barrista in her 2003 HBO special, "I'll have a coffee and a side of Red Bull, because I'm very busy. I've got TBD [too busy disorder] and I'm late for yoga, hurry, hurry!"

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