Disney shuts down retail stores in broader shift to technology

A pedestrian walks past a boarded up Walt Disney Co. Disney store in San Francisco, California, on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Like so many other companies, the pandemic has forced Disney to go digital faster than expected.

The latest beat in that transformation came Wednesday, with the company’s announcement that it would close 20% of its 300 retail stores around the world. Additional store closures and an undisclosed number of layoffs will follow. The company said it will instead bolster its e-commerce business by offering more products on its ShopDisney website. (Sounds a lot like GameStop, right?)

The move is a signal from the most powerful company in entertainment that the habits consumers developed during the pandemic, like online shopping with zippy shipping, will stick around as the economy opens back up in the coming months.

With its parks and cruises shuttered or only partially open for at least a few more months, much of the focus and energy at Disney has been around its year-old streaming service Disney+. Disney+ has already ballooned to nearly 95 million subscribers, second only to long-time incumbent Netlfix. Disney expects to have up to 260 million subscribers by 2024.

And Disney has proven it’s not slowing down, with a string of enticing shows and movies coming throughout the year tied to its popular Marvel and Star Wars franchises. (The shows like “WandaVision” and “The Mandalorian” that have debuted so far have already proven to be smash hits, dominating the pop culture zeitgeist every Friday when new episodes debut.) Late last year, Disney unveiled a slew of new content tied to those franchises, much of which will be exclusive to Disney+. As soon as one season ends, there’ll be something new for fans to watch and keep them glued to their Disney+ subscription.

Disney’s digital shift is an early glimpse at what a post-pandemic world will look like.

Physical retail stores will continue to fade in favor of online shopping. Many movies that normally would’ve hit theaters first will stream to your living room instead. Media companies like Disney, ViacomCBS and Discovery will focus their energy on slurping up as many subscribers as possible for their nascent streaming services as the streaming wars wage on and more households ditch the cable bundle. (There will be more losers than winners.) And so on.

If you want to understand what the post-pandemic economy will be like, look no further than Disney’s changes during the pandemic.

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