Putting Place and Experience Back Into Retail
Placemaking is not just creating experiences, but pushing for necessary services and goods to be purchased as close as possible to home. What kind of places then, do we all want to shop at, at least those of us who are concerned with the effects of sprawl, fair labor, humanely raised food and fibers and a sense of classic customer service. Scratch want, what kind of places do we need to shop at, to fulfill our values and soothe our senses? After all, so much of consumption in the modern era is geared towards soothing our feelings and wants, more so than what we actually need. If we were really truly concerned about consumption, we’d all be homesteading. Yet, that’s not to say that those of us who choose to live a little more urban than rural are not responsible, nor valid in our thoughts of more responsible retail. How do we balance the sense of place, the sense of responsibility and the sense of consumption?
Street Markets/Farmers Markets/Commerce Vehicles
Taking things back to the classic form of the marketplace, where people open up their cars, put out tables, hold out signs and pitch tents to pitch their wares, often in the open air. The start-up costs for the sellers are low, plus, they enjoy the flexibility of driving around from neighborhood to neighborhood and town to town, finding the places where people purchase from them the most. In addition, a community often forms around these markets. There’s the scarcity of knowing that you can only find that particular table or truck at that particular place for a limited amount of time, much like all those TV advertisements with the 1-800 number. Yet, you also get to know the people behind the product, the ones with the family recipes and the desire to help others and themselves build a better community one booth at a time. Also, this is where some of the restrictive regulations on signage and placement help. If a product or service is good enough, they break though the restrictions and become a need, not a nuisance.
Older Streetcar Suburb or Village-Style District
A new study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation divided up DC, San Francisco and Seattle by block and analyzed spending and traffic patterns. It found that in older, village-style districts stores stay open later, more venues, such as performance spaces or bars are open later, people utilizing tend to be younger and more energetic and the cost for doing business is lower for entrepreneurs. Many may resent commercial encroachment in some of these neighborhoods, but if businesses are forced to keep a small footprint, then they are more likely to interact with those people already in the community, because they as companies have to reach out for additional resources.
I see this as a way that the big box stores can get back in the urbanist social graces. Yes, have a big distribution center, but only out by existing interstate spurs that actually connect states and not loops. Let the cities, towns and villages be spaces where people get to know samples of your products or touch the items like fruit and dairy that have a high expiration date. Here they can try on the clothes of your brands, and then know their exact measurements, to then pull out smartphones and put in a regular recurring shipment of slacks or shift dresses. They can also get to know new products and come talk to a person to ask questions and raise concerns about product quality or usage.
The other way that box stores and major scale commerce can get back into a more personal style of selling. Piggybacking on the showcase above, if a person knows what size they are, and how much of a non-perishable food item they need, then why not go ahead and ship it to their home. Take the costs of displaying items on a large level and put that back into direct-to-home shipping. Encourage people to purchase on a monthly or quarterly basis in large quantities, so that not only they can budget for your store’s goods, but you can also know exactly what to expect in income and expenses, reducing the anxiety of knowing where and when a market or a customer base will show up. Also, if you offer installation or any other type of services, you help the customer by taking some of the work of using your product away from them.
This is the final piece of responsible, experience-based retail. When a person budgets, they take into account when certain vendors are around, when delivery is scheduled to come with other goods and they know approximately how much they need to spend. Likewise for businesses, it helps the cash flow accounts of businesses who know exactly when money is coming in the door. For those who are in the village/mobile model of retail, it helps keep overhead expenses down as you determine where to settle and where to travel.
Further Applications and Final Thoughts
The main caveat to all these methods is spontaneity. What if you want to try something new? How do you discover new things? What if production and processing costs go up? This is where communication and trust are vital. Make it easy, if you are in the showroom/delivery model, for people to cancel, as well as see when products change prices or if products are running low. Or, if you have new customers for products, help them see the process of getting these products to them and explain why it may take longer for others to show up.
For those in the village/mobility model, people can make the choices for themselves not to show up. If a neighborhood or district doesn’t support you as a business anymore, you can always pack up and move somewhere else, until you find yourself stable enough to establish roots and maybe even expand into the showroom/delivery model.
To conclude, this represents a radical reorganization of how we purchase. Yet, this reorganization has already began in many markets and is the only thing keeping others afloat, especially in a world where Amazon could be the only showroom, leaving all others to forge smaller footprints if they want something more personal or customized. It also calls upon retailers themselves to form different alliances and collectives.
How would you add a sense of place back into activities of commerce?
Kristen Jeffers is The Black Urbanist. She holds an MPA with a concentration in community and economic development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She writes to bring together the community members with its designers, planners, policy-makers and visionaries. She's been obsessed with cities since her childhood, when she started taking trips on the floor with maps, toy ...