American battle: weirdness vs. wealth

In a closer look at what is happening to retailers in New York City, Derek Thompson suggests two contrary forces are at work in urban America:

A war is playing out in American cities between wealth and weirdness. The former encourages the pursuit of national trends and national brands—high-end fitness studios adjoining Sweetgreen franchises—for the purpose of maximizing profit on a per-lease basis. That spirit runs counter to the desire for diversity and experimentation, which requires policies that actively promote the survival of small companies in an economy that would otherwise eat them up.

I would suggest this goes further than just big cities. One could argue this is a larger battle fought since at least the end of World War Two involving revered ideals in American culture.

On one side are the powers of standardization, efficiency, predictability, and national chains. Think the rise of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Google. These companies came to represent whole sectors of business and their actions helped lead to predictable user experiences and outcomes across different geographic contexts. They are good at efficiency, offering customers a cheap service while turning out billions in profit.

On the other side are the powers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, diversity, and American individualism. Think the quirky and interesting shopping districts that attract visitors. Many of the establishments offer unique experiences that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Think businesses that reflect the traits of their owners. These are people trying out ideas and participating in the local community. Non-conformity and cool are still sought after.

Both of these types of businesses reflect American ideals. Many of the national chains we know today started as the more unusual business options that became wildly successful. Some owners and founders want to remain small and others want to try for everything they can get. Obtaining a good balance of these approaches is likely hard to do from a policy level.

What was present and missing from my peak suburbia drive to Costco

A few days ago, I picked up a few family members and we visited the nearest Costco (utilizing one of their memberships). One family member remarked this may have been a peak suburbia experience – and they may be right for several reasons:

  1. We traveled in a minivan. We didn’t necessarily need all of that space but it could have proved useful at some point.
  2. We stopped at McDonald’s along the way. The minivan went through the drive-through, a common American occurrence.
  3. We traveled to a quintessential big box store: Costco. The store was crowded, we browsed for over an hour, and we purchased a good number of items.

At the same time, we missed a few elements of a truly peak suburban experience:

  1. The trip to Costco was not sandwiched between a kid’s activity. Put a pick-up from preschool at the beginning and a travel to a lesson or sports practice at the end.
  2. The crowds and traffic were not too bad because of the time of day we went to Costco. Instead, make this all part of a evening commute between roughly 3:30 PM and 6:30 PM.
  3. While we certainly purchased items that we did not need, I would not say that we mindlessly consumed on bulk items. Most or all of the items had a justifiable reason for their purchase.

The combination of driving in a large vehicle for consumption purposes among a semi-dense landscape…is this what Americans dream of when choosing to live in suburbia?

When bricks and mortar stores can’t make it even in Manhattan

Heart of one of the world’s leading global cities, Manhattan has its own struggles with keeping brick and mortar retailers in operation:

That’s right: On a nine-block stretch of what’s arguably the world’s most famous avenue, steps south of the bustling Time Warner Center and the planned new Nordstrom department store, lies a shopping wasteland.

Yes, there are bank branches, restaurants, fast-food outlets, theaters, Duane Reades, a vitamin shop and a few tourist-targeted “discount” stores. But mainly there are oodles of empty spaces covered with signs touting SUPERB CORNER RETAIL OPPORTUNITY.

The same crisis blights the rest of Manhattan. The people invested in storefront retailing — real-estate developers, landlords and retail companies themselves — tell us not to worry. It’s a “transitional” situation that will right itself over time. Authoritative-sounding surveys by real-estate and retail companies claim that Manhattan’s overall vacancy is only just 10 percent.

But they are all wrong. Bricks-and-mortar retail is shrinking so swiftly and on such a wide scale, it’s going to require big changes in how we plan our new buildings and our cities — although nobody wants to admit it.

This is an interesting argument to make: even with all of the tourists, wealth, and attention bestowed upon the borough, retail is disappearing from Manhattan. And if shopping disappears, with shopping being one of the favorite leisure activities of Americans, might this negatively affect the business and social life of a Manhattan used to ultra-busy sidewalks?

On the other hand, Manhattan may not be the best example. The median household income in Manhattan is not as high as one might expect, there is not much of a middle class, and the cost of living is high. Add in that Manhattan does have a lot of tourists, workers that arrive for the day and leave at night, and concentrations of residents in different parts of the island. The sheer density of people might suggest that retailers should be able to make it in Manhattan but it is a complicated place.

More broadly, what will tourist locations of the future look like if even more shopping is done online? For decades, the international tourist destination includes significant amounts of shopping. What would fill that space?

A fast lane for walkers in a Liverpool shopping complex

Fast movers get their own walking lane in a new experiment outside Liverpool stores:

Argos has painted new markings on the pavement outside its Liverpool store after research revealed almost half the nation found the slow pace of high streets to be their biggest shopping bugbear.

The new lane, being trialled this week in the Liverpool One shopping complex, hopes to help pick up the pace for those who are hurrying by bypassing the crowds.

New statistics show 31 per cent of people find pavement hoggers frustrating, while more than a quarter (27 per cent) get annoyed by dawdling pedestrians…

‘As the research demonstrates, a faster high street could vastly improve the overall shopping experience for British shoppers across the UK.

As a fast walker, I approve. However, I envision multiple problems arising:
  1. The speed of fast walkers could vary quite a bit from each other. Various people could be moving faster than the general population but still not be moving fast enough for others in the fast track.
  2. What happens when people inevitably wander into the fast track without knowing?
  3. Where is the proper entrance and exit ramp on this track? This isn’t exactly like a moving walkway that has a clear beginning and end. Come to think of it, why not install more moving walkways that can help everyone move faster through a main corridor like this? (It does look like this is an outside setting so that’s an issue.)

How long can this experiment last? While there are a lot of pedestrians on many city streets, I’ve never seen fast lanes like this before.

Shopping malls adapting with new purposes and targeted groups

Joel Kotkin argues shopping malls aren’t dead – they’re changing their purpose and targeting wealthier and ethnic consumers.

To be sure, there are hundreds of outmoded malls, long-in-the-tooth complexes most commonly found in working-class suburbs and inner-ring city neighborhoods. Some will never come back. By some estimates, something close to 10 to 15 percent of the country’s estimated 1,000 malls will go out of business over the next decade; many of them are located in areas where budgets have been very tight, with locals tending to shop at “power centers” built around low-end discounters such as Target or Walmart.

But the notion that Americans don’t like malls anymore is misleading. The roughly 400 malls that service more-affluent communities—like those typically anchored by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom—recovered most quickly from the recession, and now appear to be doing quite well.

To suggest malls are dead based on failure in failed places would be like suggesting that the manifest shortcomings of Baltimore or Buffalo means urban centers are not doing well. Like cities, not all malls are alike.

Looking across the entire landscape, it’s clear the mall is transforming itself to meet the needs of a changing society but is hardly in its death throes. Last year, vacancy rates in malls flattened for the first time since the recession. The gains from e-commerce—6.5 percent of sales last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2010—has had an effect, but bricks and mortar still constitutes upwards of 90 percent of sales. There’s still little new construction, roughly one-seventh what it was in 2006, but that’s roughly twice that in 2010.

In other words, shopping malls today can’t afford to try to target everyone at once. Rather, the retail market has both exploded with opportunities and fragmented, meaning that malls and other retailers have to target particular groups. This is going to be easier in areas that have money or lack other retailers or have growing populations.

Of course, Kotkin isn’t particularly worried that shopping malls are taking over the Main Street function for suburbs and other communities. There are issues with this: this is privatized space that often requires a car to get to and its primary activity is consumerism. Indeed, if people focused on activities other than shopping (which remains a very popular activity), our version of  capitalism might ground to a halt:

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Still, many communities will be happy if shopping malls continue as they are economic boons through sales taxes and jobs.

Shopping malls have to renovate and adapt in order to survive

Even successful shopping malls like Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg have to innovate in order to stay relevant:

With shopping habits having been permanently reshaped by memories of the recession and the availability of new technology, traditional malls like Schaumburg’s must find new reasons for people to make the trip, said Phyllis Ezop, president of Ezop and Associates, a business strategy and marketing information firm in La Grange Park…

The factors that seem to separate the two categories are location, demographics, the strength of tenants and the availability of other amenities, such as restaurants and movie theaters, that can make the mall more of a destination, Stern said…

With the rising popularity of the largely outdoor lifestyle center, Woodfield’s 44-year-old indoor structure is especially challenged, Stern said.

One Woodfield’s negatives that a cosmetic renovation is unlikely to fix is its split-level nature. This makes the mall harder to navigate for the shopper and causes some spaces to be better than others for the tenant, he said…

“They need to have destinations there,” Aron said. “I really see it going in that direction. You can order things online, but you can’t have a great dinner online.

I’ve seen this idea in numerous discussions of planning, whether thinking about reviving a downtown or a shopping mall or a tourist locale: potential visitors need a destination, something unique to get them there. In this sense, Woodfield already is ahead of the game: it is one of the largest malls in the United States, has over 2 million square feet of retail space, and companies located there treat it as an important location (flagship stores, special concepts, etc.). But, it is not guaranteed that people will continue to visit shopping malls. These days, the hook seems to be entertainment. Sure, the mall has shopping but eating, movies, special events, and unique spaces offer entertaining experiences.

Thanksgiving and Black Friday expose class differences

What people do on Thanksgiving and the day after is indicative of their class status:

But Black Friday is also, as pseudo-holidays go, more class-conscious than most. It is thus more divisive than most. If you can’t normally afford a flat-screen/iPad/Vitamix/Elsa doll/telephone, Black Friday discounts could offer you the opportunity to purchase those items. If you can normally afford those things, though, you may well decide that the trip to the mall, with its “throngs” and its “masses” and its sweaty inconvenience, isn’t worth the trouble.

Which is another way of saying what a headline last week, from the Los Angeles Times, summed up well: “Black Friday highlights the contrast between rich and poor.” As a spectacle, it may be celebrated by all, but it is participated in, increasingly, by a few. Black Friday stands, both temporally and culturally, in stark contrast to Thanksgiving, which is not a Hallmark holiday so much as a Williams-Sonoma one, and which involves, at its extremes, people who can afford heritage turkeys/disposable centerpieces/vessels designed solely to pour gravy congratulating themselves on how wonderfully non-commercial the whole thing is. With stomachs full of bird and broccolini and bourbon-ginger-apple pie, they settle in to watch the news stories that come out of Black Friday—the stampedes, the stabbings—and gawk in amusement and amazement. “All that for a flat screen,” they say, drinking their wine and clucking their tongues.

Perhaps this helps explain something I saw in a number of news stories about shoppers going out to line up for Thanksgiving evening store openings. A number of those interviewed suggested they didn’t like the idea of having to leave home to shop (some foregoing their family meals) or having retail workers put in holiday hours. Yet, they felt compelled to shop because the deals were too good to pass up.

This all sounds like Bourdieu’s lifestyle differences through class distinctions. How do you celebrate Thanksgiving? It should be little surprise that food and entertainment choices that day are guided by class-influenced tastes. When do you shop and how do you do it? It is all likely (from brands to time you have to spend on it) influenced by class.

I remember one professor of mine suggesting to the class that they needed to go to Walmart to find real (implied: average) Americans. At least one student seemed aghast. Perhaps the peak of that would be to go to Walmart on Thanksgiving and Black Friday…

Convincing suburban drivers that downtown parking is available

The Chicago suburbs of Wheaton and Glen Ellyn are looking for ways to convince residents that there are plenty of parking spots in their downtowns:

For years, officials in Glen Ellyn have been hearing from residents about a lack of parking in the downtown, despite studies showing plenty of spaces available for customers…

“It dawned upon us that it isn’t a lack of parking, but addressing the perception of the lack of parking,” Glen Ellyn Police Chief Phil Norton said at a recent village meeting. “We’re going to shift our focus and start working on addressing the perception. You can go anywhere and be within a block or a block and a half of convenient parking.”…

The changes include creating 12 “Customer Only” parking spots where parking meters were removed in the Main Street and Pennsylvania lot. It also includes making the Union Pacific lot at Crescent and Main customer parking only, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and making Schock Square customer parking only, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays…

In Wheaton, parking was one of the issues addressed in the final draft of a downtown strategic plan and streetscape plan recently released by the city’s consultants. A parking analysis shows there is enough parking in the city’s downtown, despite a perceived parking issue reported by residents who participated in the survey, officials said.

In the plan, consultants recommended the city consider adding differentiated time limits on certain spaces such as 15 minutes, 1 hour and two hours. That will encourage employees to park in other areas and free up spaces for customers, consultants said.

It would helpful to know why exactly residents think there isn’t much parking. Is it because the parking isn’t right in front of the store? Is it because the parking is more difficult to get into, say angled or parallel parking, than a large parking lot? Is it because the streets or narrower or they can’t perceive they can walk to multiple stores? Some of these issues might seem plausible yet people are willing to endure walks in large, crowded parking lots for big box stores or malls.

The interesting thing to me is that this is a decades-long problem for these downtowns. It dates back at least to the 1950s when downtowns had to start competing with new strip malls and shopping malls which offered multiple stores as well as free parking (as opposed to having parking meters). Even though downtowns might offer plenty of stores within a short distance, I suspect suburbanites perceive that it is more congested and more difficult to get to, even before they know whether parking is available.

Another creative solution: apps or websites that display available parking spaces downtown which gives people real-time information as well as combats percetions that parking isn’t available.

Don’t blame Black Friday and Thanksgiving shopping; they just expose the consumerist system

As crowds gathered to shop on Thanksgiving and into Black Friday, there has been plenty of backlash from those who think this violates a sacred family holiday to those who don’t like that relatively low-paid retail workers have to work another day to those who bemoan the lengths Americans will go to fight over some doorbusters. All of this might be true but I think it misses the point: these two days simply lay bare American consumerism. In a similar way that Walmart and McDonald’s tend to take the brunt of complaints about big box stores and fast food restaurants, Black Friday and shopping on Thanksgiving share a similar fate: they simply make real what is true about Americans and what they want.

There is a whole system at work here. It involves buying single-family homes, talk about the American Dream (equated with acquiring certain items), dreams about scientific progress and mechanical abilities such that life will be easier, liking having choices more than enjoying the goods themselves, acquiring stuff, and an economy and financial system dependent on average citizens continuing to buy beyond subsistence items. This system involves some great advances put to interesting uses, things like the assembly line, the internal combustion engine, transistors and semiconductors, the mass production of houses, the rise of marketing, and mass media.

The lesson is that hardly any day all year long is sacrosanct any longer; more than family togetherness, more than patriotism, perhaps more than the Super Bowl (which combines all of these things in a different way), Americans enjoy shopping, good deals, and consumption. It is competitive and alluring and our collective retirement accounts may all very well depend on this behavior.

Painting the church of Walmart

Lots of “normal” activities take place at Walmart so why not spiritual matters as well? Artist Brenden O’Connell has taken up the subject:

For the past decade, O’Connell has been snapping photographs inside dozens of Wal-Marts. The images have served as inspiration for an ongoing series of paintings of everyday life — much of which involves shopping, which O’Connell calls “that great contemporary pastime.”

“Wal-Mart was an obvious place” to look for inspiration, he tells The Salt. “It’s sort of the house that holds all American brands.”…

Wal-Mart stores, he notes, are “probably one of the most trafficked interior spaces in the world.” In the tall, open, cathedral-like ceilings of Wal-Mart’s big-box stores, he sees parallels to church interiors of old.

“There is something in us that aspires to some kind of transcendence,” he told me back in February. “And as we’ve culturally turned from religious things, we’ve turned our transcendence to acquisition and satisfying desires.”

In conversation, O’Connell comes across as thoughtful and urbane. He’s well aware that, as a company, Wal-Mart can be polarizing. But “regardless of your feelings about it,” he told me back then, “it just is. It’s like an irrevocable reality that’s part of our experience.”

On the occasions that we go to church and then Walmart afterward, I have joked that we are visiting America’s two kinds of churches. This may not be too far from reality considering the number of shoppers at Walmart, its yearly sales, and the power of its brand. But, it is really that surprising that a retail store could be the contemporary version of a spiritual space when our country is so devoted to consumption and shopping?