Cities sans shopping

StripCenter

Before the advent of civilization, there was little trade and few “stores”. We did not “store” much, we went and hunted or gathered what we needed. Once we invented agriculture, we invented storage, and surplus, and extended trade. We held inventory. Once we sold inventories from fixed locations in exchange for what become money, retailing was invented.

A while ago I wrote this:

Some nuance on language.

Shop: wiktionary: From Middle English shoppe, from Old English sceoppa (“booth”)

  1. An establishment that sells goods or services to the public; originally a physical location, but now a virtual establishment as well.
  2. A place where things are crafted; a workshop or hobbyshop.
  3. An automobile mechanic’s workplace.
  4. Workplace; office. Used mainly in expressions such as shop talk, closed shop and shop floor.

Store: wiktionary:  Etymology from Latin instaurare – (“erect, establish”). store

  1. A place where items may be accumulated or routinely kept.
  2. A supply held in storage.
  3. (mainly North American) A place where items may be purchased.

A shop is a place where things are worked on (and sold), a store is a place where things are kept (and sold). We go shopping but we don’t go storing, we come home and store the things we got from the larger store.

The idea of a store, where things that we may need are stored and distributed, is ultimately one of sharing community resources. I may need tools at some point, but rather than own all the tools I might need, there is a hardware store which sells things on a just-in-time basis to consumers. Who owns the hardware store (an individual, a firm, a cooperative) is secondary to the necessity of such a function to achieve economies of scale and ensure variety. If there were no stores, we would need to store everything we might need, and would need to truck and barter for goods with their makers, a much less efficiency system.

The idea of a shop is just the place where the trade takes place. Implicitly, a store holds lots of things, a shop is just a place for the transaction or some local repair work. This is somewhat lost in modern usage, but we still have hardware stores and grocery stores (which are relatively large), but dress shops, tailor shops, auto shops (which at least the first two are relatively small, and the latter two refer to where things are done rather than already made things are sold).

Both of these functions are necessary in urban systems. We  need both places to store items we may need in the future (and then acquire them when needed), and we need shop-places to work on things, making them, repairing them, altering them.  With the move toward a disposable society, where it costs more to fix things (which is a laborious process) than make them (which is often automated), the share of space devoted to shops rather than stores has declined. Proposition Joe is in a declining business (“Shine that up and put $7.50 on it… Shame to let a good toaster go to waste over a frayed cord” – Proposition Joe, The Wire)

Where these things are located relative to where people and live and work depends on the frequency of use. We want things we want frequently (e.g. milk), to be closer than things we want infrequently (e.g. furniture). But closer and farther are relative not absolute terms. They depend on context: location with respect to others (density or community demand), the cost of travel (technology), frequency of use (individual demand), and so on. Relative locations have changed over time as density, technology, and demand have changed.

While transactions are here to stay, if only for the raw materials needed to operate our 3D printers, “going shopping” in the physical world may have peaked.

American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends
American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends

The American Time Use Survey shows a drop in time spent “purchasing goods and services) from 2003 (0.81 hours) to 2008 (0.77 hours) to 2009 (0.72 hours) to  2010 (0.75 hours) to 2011 (0.72 hours). 0.09 hours per day may not seem like much, and this is only a few years trend, and there is some volatility, but it is consistent with what we know about the rest of the world.

To the extent I can operate in a de-materialized world, where fetching is replaced by delivery (especially by automated delivery), the amount of shopping (and naturally, the space devoted to shopping) will shrink. This is counter-balanced by the trends toward greater income (which has to be spent on something) and more time (which also has to be spent on something), for which retail may be an attractive solution. But this turns retail into a service and entertainment activity more than a transactional one.

In Chapter 9 of Planning for Place and Plexus, we write about: The rise (and fall) and rise (and fall?) of door-to-door delivery

Door-to-door delivery differs from door-to-door sales. The delivery requires only a catalog (be it paper or electronic) and some way of getting the order and finances from the consumer to the manufacturer and the goods from the manufacturer back to the consumer.

The enabler for this type of exchange was the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery (RFD). The need for RFD lay in several factors. The remoteness of rural America meant 30 million residents had to travel to town to pick up their mail. The poor quality of roads made this difficult. Postmaster General (and department store founder) John Wanamaker pushed for RFD, which began in the 1890s, and after experimentation it was finally inaugurated in 1896 in West Virginia and ramped up to 29 states. By 1901, Congress made RFD permanent. RFD had several effects. One is that it gave added weight behind federal involvement in the good roads movement. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”; though federal aid for state roads did not really begin until 1913, and did not get going until 1916.

A second effect is that retailers like Montgomery Ward, L.L. Bean, Charles Tiffany, W.A. Burpee, and of course Sears, Roebuck & Company took advantage of RFD. Especially with the addition of parcel service to traditional postal service, the mail order catalog business took off. Sears, which had been publishing specialty catalogs since 1888, issued its first general merchandise catalog, the “Big Book”, in 1896, whose Christmas edition came to be known as the “Wish Book”. The catalog truly was general merchandise, selling cars by catalog from 1909 to 1913 and bungalow houses from 1908 until the Great Depression. In fact, Sears didn’t open its first retail store until 1925, and the general Big Book catalog was discontinued in 1993 (Sears 2004), notably before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web.

By the time Sears was scaling back its catalog business, mail order, along with toll free numbers, had become a booming industry. The emerging internet saw the rise of numerous e-commerce vendors. Amazon.com (founded 1994) and eBay (founded 1995) relied both on the post office, as well as express carriers such as Federal Express (founded 1971) and United Parcel Service (founded 1907). Jupiter (2004) estimates US online sales at $65 Billion, growing to $117 Billion by 2008, which will amount to about 5% of all retail sales, although the online sector is growing faster than traditional retailing.

Online research influences a great deal of offline purchases, but what is missing from online sales are things that are widely consumed without much research, like supermarket food items, as well as items like gasoline that are impractical to deliver. Many have tried to extend the reach of online purchasing to replace the supermarket, recalling the milkman of yore, but companies such as Webvan did not succeed. Webvan, which attracted more venture capital than any internet retailer except Amazon.com, delivered food to customers in seven cities, and established a new warehouse distribution system (Paying $1 Billion to Bechtel for this) in each of those cities. It acquired rival startup Home Grocer, but wound up spending money faster than it could earn it for long enough that it had to declare bankruptcy July 10, 2001, after the peak in the stock market bubble (but before 9/11). Even more ambitious, Kozmo.com, which served seven cities, promised free one-hour delivery for a variety of goods from videos to coffee and ice cream ordered online. Unlike Webvan, Kozmo.com never went public, lasting from 1998 to April 2001. Webvan like services (Peapod and Simon Delivers, among others) do remain, with lower capital costs. Whether these are profitable remains to be seen.

But we now see a second run at making delivery of even perishable items standard. Amazon, Google, and others are trying to figure out a workable model that is cheaper than the USPS, Federal Express and UPS for same-day delivery.

The more that is delivered, the less that is fetched. Shopping transitions from the real to virtual, and some, if not all, of the space that was devoted to shopping (14.2 billion square feet) will need to disappear. [For perspective, the Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet, of which 2.5 million is retail. So US retail is basically 3000 Malls of America.]

Fortunately, a lot of the retail that will disappear is, for lack of a better word, crap. We all know the dumpy strip malls that besot our landscape. First they will lower rents. Second they will be abandoned. Then they will be replaced. As with many of these processes, there will be a rich get richer phenomenon, the few remaining retail centers may continue to grow, as the experience of shopping (requiring many many choices) replaces the necessity of shopping. The commodity distributors will be replaced by commodity deliverers if the cost of distributions can be flipped so that delivery is cheap enough. But people still need to leave home, if only to get out of the house. Looking at things is a good excuse. This suggests artisans and crafts, and things that are more attractive in person than online will be the things that motivate us to leave the home-work axis for alternative destinations. The purchase of stocks like paper towels will rarely be enough to get us out of our chairs.

But with what will we replace the losers?

These are the tear-downs. To the extent they still have good transport access, they might remain commercial, or be appropriate for high density residential. On University Avenue along the Central Corridor, abandoned retail is being transitioned to new residential construction.

I don’t expect many parks or single-family homes, since these are still relatively prime locations from an accessibility perspective, and along transportation corridors. While the highest and best use may not be retail stores, there are still other activities that benefit from locations that are easily reached.