Much noise has been made in recent years about the death of retail. The global economic downturn aside, people are increasingly turning to online retailers for much of their shopping. This evolution of shopping habits is only just beginning, and I think it’s useful to compare it to the rise of big box retailers from the 1970s to the beginning of this century. Big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy gradually replaced smaller retailers who could not compete either on price or convenience. From an urban planning perspective, the rise of big box stores seems inevitable. An increasingly spread-out population which depends on automobile travel will prefer to have to find parking in as few places as possible, hence the development of indoor and strip malls. Onerous parking requirements and limited commercial zoning near residential areas sealed the deal for small retailers. Big box stores offered consumers the opportunity to buy a lot of things at once, which is a boon rather than a burden if you own an automobile, and their scale ensured that they could provide low prices.
Today, the Internet has shifted the playing field, and nobody is hurting more than big box retailers. Convenience and low prices, the erstwhile strengths of the big box, are the new hallmark of online retail. As online retail continues to mature and generations brought up online come of age, big box stores, and indeed our entire current strip-mall model of retail, are increasingly looking like unsustainable propositions.
So is there a place for physical retail locations in the age of the Internet? Absolutely! In fact, I believe a physical retail renaissance is possible, if our cities and their regulations will allow it. Just look at what the Internet has already done for real-life shopping: various consumer-oriented web sites and mobile apps have made it easier than ever not only to find what you’re looking for, but to determine where you’re likely to get the best service. Online communities have sprouted up for aficionados of just about any type of retail product. These communities have enormous knowledge bases, and are usually very willing to both patronize and promote physical retailers who exhibit the same level of knowledge and care about their products. These global opinion networks allow small retailers to profitably expand into some level of online business as well, which can help prop up a physical store financially.
Nevertheless, the urban design barriers to small retail, and indeed to any new retail in the age of Internet commerce, still exist. It’s simply too expensive to run a physical store, and it’s too inconvenient for people to travel to them. Both problems can be alleviated by changing zoning and parking regulations and increasing density. Allowing dense, walkable residential and commercial spaces to mingle makes affordable, convenient retail possible. I believe that if we allow such spaces to exist, innovation will flourish, and we will finally see physical retail locations that complement, rather than compete with, online retail.