Uniqlo, don’t lose your edge by appealing to the suburban market like Gap did

An overview of Uniqlo suggests it would do well to avoid becoming the wear of suburban families:

Uniqlo isn’t in the business of chasing trends. Its staples—versatile black pants, reliable oxfords, crisp cotton socks—are available month after month, year after year. A more apt analogue would be the Gap. In its 1990s heyday, the Gap revolutionized American retailing by making basics cool. But the company eventually became a victim of its own success. “When [the Gap] tried to go from having a certain cachet to being in every single mall in every single town in America, the brand lost its edge,” Steve Rowen, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research, told me. Gap clothing became the uniform of suburban moms and dads. Despite the company’s efforts to make its khakis less baggy and its shirts slimmer, no one wants to fall into the Gap anymore—especially when you can get cheaper basics with cleaner lines at Uniqlo…

That could be an opportunity to make a good first impression. But as Uniqlo learned when it arrived on American shores, first impressions can be hard to manage. The three original U.S. stores were in New Jersey malls, where the company soon encountered several hurdles, including fit. (American customers, on average, are taller and fleshier than Japanese shoppers.) It closed the stores within a year.

Uniqlo has continued to struggle in suburban markets. Rowen, of Retail Systems Research, said he thinks the company should hew closely to cities, where it has found its greatest success, because that’s where its core customers are. This would also help it avoid the fate of the Gap, which traded its sense of self for growth.

This could be a simply story of a company being cautioned to avoid the mass market because doing so would lessen is cool factor. But, it is interesting that this is cast primarily in suburban/urban terms. The dilemma appears to be choosing between these two points:

  1. The majority of Americans live in suburbs. If a company wants to hit it big, the American people are in the suburbs. Furthermore, there is a lot of money to tap in the suburbs as well as future generations of loyal brand adherents in the form of suburban children.
  2. Being associated with the suburbs – shopping malls, parents, the mass market – will change the brand and eventually render it obsolete.

It is also worth considering numerous other brands that have appealed to suburbanites and survived. Is the clothing market that different than the smartphone and tech industry? In other words, does Apple suffer because so many suburbanites have an iPhone or are they the rare example of a company that has kept its cool factor even while becoming ubiquitous?

If this were an American company, I might guess that they would eventually go for the suburbs with all its money and potential buyers.

The demise of gas-powered leaf blowers

One tool in the arsenal of those who care about lawns (i.e. many Americans) may be on the way out due to pollution and noise. See this brief overview of how Washington, D.C. will soon be free of gas-powered leaf blowers:

Back in the fall of 2015, in the first installment in this series, I mentioned that a group of community activists in our hometown of Washington, D.C., had begun an effort to get noisy, hyper-polluting, gas-powered leaf blowers banned in the capital, as has already happened in more than 100 cities across the country.

The reasons for the ban are: the obsolescence of the technology, which is orders of magnitude more polluting than other machines and engines now in common use; the public-health danger, above all to hired work crews, of both the emissions and the damagingly loud noise from the gas blowers; and the rapid advent of battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and dramatically less polluting.

The purpose of this post is to record how the story turned out:

  • From 2015 to early 2018, more than one-third of all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in the District, elected bodies covering seven of the eight wards in the District, voted to endorse this mandatory shift.
  • In July 2018, the council had hearings on a phaseout measure, sponsored by the council member Mary Cheh.
  • Late in the year, the 13-member council passed Mary Cheh’s bill, unanimously.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed the bill, and it will take effect as of January 1, 2022.

The pollution aspects of these tools is little-known. The gas powered devices that are used around the yard and home can generate significant amounts of pollution. As Fallows points out in his longer piece on this topic in the April 2019 print edition of The Atlantic, significant advancements have been made in reducing pollution in other devices but two-stroke engines pollute a lot.

The noise dimension is also worth paying more attention to. Suburban communities, home to many leaf blowers, can be noisy places during the summer months. Those who actually use the leaf blowers can have more direct negative consequences.

While the solution to these problems seems to be battery operated or electric tools, I wonder if homeowners and business owners could advance to a point where grass clippings on sidewalks and driveways or leaves do not always need to be removed. Is it a huge problem that there is some grass left over on the sidewalk? Could leaves be left to naturally break down? This would require a significant shift in thinking about lawns as pristine showpieces and “nature.”

Viewing city-to-city trains as public goods and not profit generators

An overview of what expanded Midwest city-to-city train service could look like includes a call to recast the purpose of trains:

Matthews said it is important for Congress to realize that passenger rail offers a public good, just as street lights do. The question is not whether the Southwest Chief makes money, but whether the community makes money because the train is there.

As the thinking about more train service in the Midwest between major cities continues, it will likely take a lot to shift perspectives from making money to providing a public good. If more service is provided, will more people ride it? Of course, it is hard to know what could come of more service until it actually happens. My guess is that we are still a long ways off in the United States from more train service – people still like their cars – and it would be difficult to funnel money from other transportation budgets – such as road maintenance and construction – to trains.

This call for a shift in perspective could serve as a general reminder for all infrastructure projects: focus less on the cost now and think more broadly about what that piece of infrastructure enables. Roads, power lines, water, railroads, and more enable other activities to take place that depend on solid infrastructure.

This also reminds me of sociologist Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. As railroads emerged in the mid-1800s, Dobbin argues France employed a top-down centralized strategy for railroads in the country, Britain had the most laissez-faire approach, and the United States was in the middle with some government support for railroads. While that occurred at the beginning of the railroad age, much of that transportation money in the United States has gone to roads and highways for roughly a century.

What might be behind a debate over affordable housing in a new Naperville development

Naperville’s Housing Advisory Commission recommends 20% of the units should be affordable housing in a proposed new development of roughly 450 residential units. Let the debate commence:

“Here’s our chance,” said Becky Anderson, a city council member and liaison to the housing advisory commission. “We own this land, so let’s make the most of it and … make sure that we include some more affordable housing.”

The city is required to provide a report by the end of June 2020 to the Illinois Housing Development Authority listing the number of units needed to comply with the 10 percent minimum and identifying sites or incentives to help reach the goal. In a position paper, the housing advisory commission said the city failed to submit such a report by the last deadline in 2015.

Mayor Steve Chirico said it’s best to use multiple sites — not only 5th Avenue — to work toward the requirement…

Mayoral candidate Richard “Rocky” Caylor, however, said incorporating 20 percent affordable units into plans for 5th Avenue sites could help take a step toward 10 percent….

Dan Zeman, who lives in the Park Addition subdivision one block north of 5th Avenue, said he originally was skeptical of affordable housing on the sites slated for redevelopment. But once he researched the topic, he decided “maybe I was just being a NIMBY,” and thinking “not in my backyard.”

A few guesses about what might be lurking behind this affordable housing discussion in Naperville:

  1. As far as I know, the Illinois requirements have little teeth and operate more like recommendations. The repercussions for Naperville for not meeting the targets might be limited.
  2. This is a sizable project near the downtown train station and within walking distance of the downtown. Because of the size and location, this is an important project.
  3. What people actually mean by affordable could differ. The current mayor is quoted in this story saying it is about “entry-level workforce housing.” Does that mean young professionals or people who work in retail or service jobs? Naperville is a wealthy large suburb.
  4. This could be a proxy conversation about poorer residents in Naperville. The poverty rate in Naperville is only 4.4%. But, do Naperville residents and leaders want more poor residents? The status and image of the community is important to many.
  5. Deconcentrating affordable housing may seem like a reasonable idea but would the city follow up in other new projects? Are there other sizable projects in the works (such as a development on the southwest side of the suburb) that could also include affordable units?

The bigger and feature-filled “New American Home”

What the National Association of Home Builders displays as the “New American Home” just keeps getting bigger and bigger:

The first New American Home that N.A.H.B. built, in Houston in 1984, was 1,500 square feet and cost $80,000. By 2006, at the peak of the housing bubble, the N.A.H.B. home – a lakeside McMansion in Florida with a tri-level kitchen island and a waterfall off the master suite – was over 10,000 square feet and listed for $5.3 million in what is today one of the nation’s foreclosure capitals, Orlando.

That 1984 project was the smallest; square footage hasn’t dipped below 2,200 since 1985. The 2018 version, also in Florida, is “Tuscan”-inspired and is close to 11,000 square feet, with eight bathrooms and both an elevator and a car elevator in the garage. The 2019 version, to be unveiled soon, is 8,000 square feet and has an “inner sanctum lounge” and a view of the Vegas strip.

NewAmericanHomeSquareFootage

The N.A.H.B. house may be meant to highlight trends, but they’re not necessarily the trends homeowners want (and certainly not what most people need). Instead, they’re what builders, kitchen and bath manufacturers and real estate agents would like to sell them: Think cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, gift-wrapping rooms and, more recently, “smart” appliances like a refrigerator that can text you when you’re low on milk and eggs.

Many builders will tell you that though these houses are large, they are more efficient – even that they have a small carbon footprint. But this is like bragging about the good gas mileage of an S.U.V. While a 10,000-square-foot house built today uses less energy than a 10,000-square-foot house built a decade ago, a home of this size requires a phenomenal amount of energy to run. (And most likely has an S.U.V. or two in the garage.)

I see enough from the NAHB to guess that they have some influence in the housing industry, particularly among national or larger builders. That their show home put together each year keeps getting bigger on average and with more and more features suggests the emphasis is on new and profits. At the same time, it might be hard to show a direct causal link between these annual productions and what homes are actually built. Builders in the United States have constructed many large homes in recent decades but the median square footage has dropped slightly in the last few years.

I suspect it would also be interesting to analyze the architectural and design choices for the New American Homes. Americans may like big homes but not necessarily modern ones. How many of these homes are modernist, Craftsman, or Mediterranean (and which styles are studiously avoided)? Are they all open concept in the main living areas? Is storage a priority and/or large garages? This sort of project could then be expanded to model homes in different areas or among different builders to think about how what builders present influence buying patterns.

Census 2020 looking to go online

Reaching younger Americans is part of the reason plans are underway to move parts of the decennial 2020 census online:

Millennials (born from 1981 to 1996) and Generation Z (born after 1996) account for about 35 percent of the approximate 325 million people in the U.S., according to estimates, and census officials say their traditional means of outreach — mail-in questionnaires, landline phone calls and door-to-door surveys — are failing to connect with this significant segment of the population.

The Census Bureau plans to conduct its first-ever online headcount, which it predicts will generate 60 percent of the total responses for 2020…

However, social scientists suggest that millennials and Generation Z could have a hard time appreciating the importance of the census, having grown up amid a distorted media landscape of instant online gratification, “fake news” and a culture of likes on social networks…

Last month, census communications chief Burton Reist was quoted as saying endorsements from celebrities such as LeBron James are being considered. He described a hypothetical situation in which the NBA superstar urges young people during halftime to pull out their cellphones and “answer the census.”

Moving data collection online would seem to offer a lot in terms of lower costs and easier data tabulation. But, as the article suggests, it brings along its own issues such as cutting through the online clutter and working with celebrities to pitch the online data collection.

On one hand, this might lead to the conclusion that it is still difficult to use web surveys to collect information on a broad scale. Unless a research company has a panel of possible participants in a recruited and relatively representative panel, reaching the broader public on a voluntary basis is hard.

On the other hand, perhaps this should be taken as a good sign: the Census Bureau clearly indicates their data collection has to match what people actually use. Going door to door may not be feasible going forward. If people are online or using devices for hours a day, online surveys might be more attractive.

Almost regardless of how this turns out in the 2020 count, it will be an interesting experiment to watch. What will the online response rate be? How will the Census Bureau have to go about advertising online data entry?

I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.

WestChicagoHouse.png

When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.