Brick-and-mortar stores seek new ways to survive "retail apocalypse"

Struggling stores get creative

Turkey is just one tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday; many stores will open Thursday night for shoppers looking to get a jump on Black Friday sales.

Almost 16 million Americans work in retail, an essential part of the U.S. economy. But many stores -- the so-called brick and mortar retailers -- are struggling against online competition. This year, dozens of retailers have filed for bankruptcy.

In a changing retail landscape, some of the survivors are looking for creative ways to get you -- and your money -- in the door.

At the Eddie Bauer store in Columbus Ohio, the retail environment is decidedly chilly. Freezing, in fact: They created an ice box chilled to 16 degrees, so customers can try out their cold-weather gear -- something that can't be done online.

You can't do this shopping online - sit on a block of ice in a freezer while other customers gawk, at Eddie Bauer in Columbus, Ohio. CBS News

Eric from Eddie Bauer said that people come to the ice box for repeat visits.

"For the novelty, or to test out the clothes?" asked Alex Wagner.

"Yeah, to test out the outerwear, for sure. That's what it's intended for. It's just a great experience."

Or, "a great way to punish children," Wagner suggested.

Retailers across the country are looking for ways to lure customers offline and into their stores. Melisa Miller, Executive Vice President and President of Card Services at Alliance Data (which helps businesses market to customers, and try to retain them), said that "the brands that are winning have figured that out and are creating unique experiences for the consumer in the store.

"It could be a makeover. It could be 'Meet the Chef.' It could be decorating services."

It's why Saks had its Wellery pop up -- part fitness center, part shopping experience.

The Wellery pop-up at Saks Fifth Avenue - part shop, part fitness center. CBS News

And Macy's is partnering with Samsung at its flagship store in New York in the hopes that virtual reality turns into actual sales.

American brick-and-mortar retail is undergoing seismic change … and the numbers tell the tale of woe: In 2017 alone, retail mainstays like Sears and K-mart have closed more than 350 stores; The Gap has closed about 200; and JCPenney has shuttered nearly 140.

At its flagship New York City store, Macy's is using virtual reality to draw in customers. CBS News

"This is the current retail apocalypse," said Mark Cohen, a professor at Columbia Business School. He says it's not just the Amazons of the world that are hurting traditional stores.

"Many of the legacy retailers -- the department stores, for example -- who've created their own websites, are now finding their core customer migrating over to the website," Cohen said.

Empty stores aren't sustainable. But novel efforts to coax customers through the doors come with risks.

"If it seems like a gimmick, today's customer sees right through it," Cohen told Wagner. "They might check it out once, but they're not going to be responsive to it.

"And more so than ever before, they have choices. Increasingly they can transact anywhere in the world just with the stroke of a key."

For some stores, it's already too late. Photographer Seph Lawless documents the collapse of the American mall:

"It's always very eerie and creepy walking into any abandoned structure, especially an abandoned mall," Lawless said.

Seph Lawless photographs abandoned structures, including the American shopping mall.  Seph Lawless

The decline in traditional retail is certainly reshaping American commerce. But it may also end up reshaping American life: "These places weren't just a place to shop," Lawless said. "It was a communal space. We went here, we met friends. This was a way we actually communicated with each other. This was a chat room before there was a chat room."

It is estimated that in the next five years, one in four U.S. malls will close. So the efforts to get people to shop in stores is urgent for these retailers.