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?

Did all American adults shop on Thanksgiving weekend?

The Weekly Standard takes a look at some figures on Thanksgiving weekend shopping as reported by the National Retail Federation:

“A record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites in the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday weekend this year, up 9% from 226 million last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation released Sunday,” the CNN reports reads. The headline reads: “247 million shoppers visited stores and websites Black Friday weekend.”

This would seem to mean, according to these statistics, that basically all Americans over the age of 14 went shopping this past weekend…

That means, if you subtract those who are too young to shop, 0-14 year olds, from the total U.S. population, there are 247,518,325 people in this country. The number of people CNN reports who went shopping this past weekend…

CNN’s numbers, however, include those who visited “websites.” The numbers [are?] so loose it could even include news website or the same person visiting multiple shopping websites.

Even if there is some double-counting in this data (and tracking across websites is difficult to do), these figures suggest a large majority of Americans went shopping after Thanksgiving. I’ve written before about the difficulty in getting 90% of Americans to agree about something but perhaps we could add the value of Black Friday shopping to the list. These figures also may add to the idea that shopping is the favorite sport of Americans.

Shopping the real favorite sport of Americans?

At the bottom of yet another article about Black Friday, I found this interesting quote from a Sears executive about how Americans view shopping:

Sears, like many retailers, will make many Black Friday deals available online. At Sears, they’re available to the store’s Shop Your Way members (there’s no fee to join, and it can be done online).

“Shopping is a sport to many people, and this is the Super Bowl,” Hanover added.

Americans tend to like their sports so could shopping really supplant football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and other activities? Here are some reasons this could happen:

1. The average American probably gets a lot more opportunities to shop than to play sports. It is different to observe a sport versus participating in shopping.

2. Shopping can now take place in many different places. As brick and mortar retailers have noticed, online shopping makes it possible to look at, think through, and make purchases from virtually anywhere.

3. Shopping is a fairly frequent activity. Even if someone spends very little disposable income, that person still has to shop for groceries and essentials.

4. Shopping incorporates some of the same features as watching sports or cheering for sports teams. Shoppers are fans of particular brands. Shopping can be done with other people, building and cementing group bonds. Shopping can be ritualistic. In other words, the same sort of social benefits of group activity suggested by Durkheim that could apply to sports could also apply to shopping.

5. Shopping is a critical part of our economy. While people do need to purchase certain goods regularly, new products like the latest smartphones, cars, video games, and other things are important for corporations, the stock market, and thus, stockholders which includes a wide range of Americans.

6. Shopping in America is often tied to holidays like Christmas, Thankgiving, and Halloween. Spending can be easier to justify because it is for the holidays plus it is related to social interactions that take place those days.

7. Compared to most of human history, more people now have the time and income to devote to shopping beyond subsistence.

Shopping itself deserves more attention from sociologists. While plenty of sociologists in recent decades have looked at consumption patterns (often focused on the products or objects acquired through consumption), this isn’t quite the same as looking at the process of shopping. I have enjoyed reading Sharon Zukin’s work on shopping; for example, see Chapter 6 “While the City Shops” in The Cultures of Cities.

Living in near poverty in the Washington D.C. suburbs

The number of poor people in the suburbs is growing and the Washington Post takes a look at those just above the poverty line in the suburbs of Washington D.C.:

These are the folks hovering above the poverty line, just a few digits away from the cliff that drops them into the world of people we fret over and create government programs for.Poverty, in most of the cases we hear it discussed, means a household income of less than $23,000 for a family of four. But what if you make $25,000, $30,000 or even $40,000? Is that easy street?…

From 2010 to 2011, poverty rates jumped in Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties, the land of McMansions, gated communities and shiny, big-box stores.

The suburbs were built to accommodate prosperity and consumption, a life of big lawns, big cars and big dreams. It is a precipice so high that the drop — a missed mortgage that turns into a foreclosure, a repossessed car that results in a lost job — is dizzying.

Step into any thrift store and the pain is on display, right along with the used cake platters, tea sets and cocktail dresses nobody needs anymore.

A few thoughts on the full story:

1. The columnist uses an interesting term for this group living just above the poverty line: the pre-poor. Does this imply that they are inevitably on a path to poverty or could they also move upward out of this group with a new job or opportunity?

2. The story focuses primarily on thrift stores but assumedly there are other places where the pre-poor shop and gather? In other words, this sounds like an easy entree into this segment of the American populace but doesn’t give us much of the complex story of their lives.

3. Another angle on this would be to look at the social services available to those just above poverty. Are there local charities, religious organizations, and civic groups trying to help? Are these suburbs, places built for prosperity and yet seeing growing need for social services, able to help?

Of malls, Mormons, mammon, and Mitt

A long article in Bloomberg Businessweek on “How the Mormons Make Money” discusses City Creek Center, a $2 billion “megamall” development that opened in March 2012 “directly across the street from the church’s iconic neo-Gothic temple in Salt Lake City”:

The mall includes a retractable glass roof, 5,000 underground parking spots, and nearly 100 stores and restaurants, ranging from Tiffany’s (TIF) to Forever 21. Walkways link the open-air emporium with the church’s perfectly manicured headquarters on Temple Square. Macy’s (M) is a stone’s throw from the offices of the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, whom Mormons believe to be a living prophet.

On the morning of its grand opening, thousands of shoppers thronged downtown Salt Lake, eager to elbow their way into the stores. The national anthem played, and Henry B. Eyring, one of Monson’s top counselors, told the crowds, “Everything that we see around us is evidence of the long-standing commitment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City.” When it came time to cut the mall’s flouncy pink ribbon [press release here], Monson, flanked by Utah dignitaries, cheered, “One, two, three—let’s go shopping!”

Watching a religious leader celebrate a mall may seem surreal, but City Creek reflects the spirit of enterprise that animates modern-day Mormonism.

A few thoughts and questions:

1.  A new, $2 billion retail development seems quite aggressive given the current business climate.  Then again, Utah seems to be faring much better than the rest of the U.S. economically.  The state averaged a 6.7% unemployment rate during 2011, 11th out of 50 states (+DC), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  More specifically, Salt Lake City’s 2011 rate was even lower at 6.5%, putting it at 52 out of 372 major metropolitan areas.  (If you’d like to see Utah’s unemployment rate over time and/or compare it with other state(s), Google has a wonderful interface for interacting with the BLS’ public data here.)

2.  City Creek Center (official webpage here) seems to be neither a traditional mall nor a “lifestyle center“.  Rather, it sprung fully formed within its urban environment (which no doubt contributed to its multi-billion dollar cost) as a rebuilding of Main Street rather than a “Main Streetification”.  If successful, could it usher in a new era of high-dollar, high-stakes urban retail (re)development?  Or does City Creek Center’s strong ties to LDS businesses constitute circumstances so special that they cannot be duplicated elsewhere?

3.  The Bloomberg article seems to connect City Creek Center to Mitt Romney, stating,

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Mormonism, an indigenous American religion, would also adopt the country’s secular faith in money. What is remarkable is how varied the church’s business interests are and that so little is known about its financial interests. Although a former Mormon bishop is about to receive the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and despite a recent public-relations campaign aimed at combating the perception that it is “secretive,” the LDS Church remains tight-lipped about its holdings. It offers little financial transparency even to its members, who are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to gain access to Mormon temples.

The unstated implication seems to be that Romney’s savvy and secrecy with his own finances is somehow related to the LDS Church’s savvy secrecy with theirs.  Is this a fair conclusion to draw?  Is Bloomberg suggesting that there is something inherent within Mormonism that mandates this particular way of doing business?


When the store with a cult following comes to town

I recently ran into an article about “16 Brands That Have Fanatical Cult Followings.” This got me thinking about how people want certain stores to move near them. Take this example from this article as several people expressed how much they wanted a Wegmans.

On its website, Wegmans writes that in 2003, almost 5,800 loyal customers wrote “love letters” to the company, with almost half of the letters including pleas to build supermarkets in their communities. One letter included rewritten lyrics to “Yesterday” by the Beatles:

A Wegmans store, it seemed so far away.
But a new one opened in Dulles today.
Now I will drive
Towards Wegmans’ way.

Wegmans mania reached a new high when a group of musical theatre students in Massachusetts created an entire musical based on the brand. They rewrote popular Broadway songs in praise of the store.

That’s some devotion. And yet, this sort of interest isn’t uncommon. I’ll briefly mention some of the stores that prompt reactions from loyal residents and communities:

-Trader Joe’s is on this list. Multiple friends have told me how much they like this store and one mentioned how while on trips he was prone to finding the Trader Joe’s before leaving to grab things for home.

-I’ve heard similar things about Ikea.

-The article has an interesting conclusion: do some of the bigger brands count as cult favorites?

The infamous Cult of Mac spans far and wide, with a deep obsession with anything and everything Apple. Starbucks blankets America, driving endless droves of coffee-lovers to its baristas. Whole Foods fans swear by the huge supermarket chain’s pesticide free cantaloupes.

Are these followers still a cult if the companies they fawn over have grown into some of the world’s biggest and most successful multinational corporations?

I say yes. Even though these may be big brands, having one of these stores indicates that the community is on the map. This is a bit of strange logic – corporate America wants to be near us! – but it suggests some prestige. Plenty of communities around the United States would have to have a Starbucks. Now only would it bring in revenue and people, having a Starbucks indicates a community has a certain kind of customers (i.e., people with money to spend on coffee) and can also help attract other businesses. Second, I saw that several Facebook friends were very excited about Whole Foods moving to Mishawaka, Indiana. This is a classic case of a cult brand moving in: the South Bend/Mishawaka area is more blue-collar, middle America but having a Whole Foods suggests it has some more sophistication and wealthy residents. Third, Apple stores are less common so perhaps more meaningful: the Apple store in downtown Naperville suggests the place is akin to an upscale shopping mall or thriving big city.

Granted, there is some breaking point to this. Not every place is thrilled to have a Starbucks and some might argue that there are too many already (the company itself suggested this in recent years). In comparison, fewer people are thrilled about a Walmart moving in. There must be some threshold when too many chains are viewed negatively and start impinging on local culture. This threshold likely differs by type of place: places that hope to be “up and coming” likely welcome such stores while wealthier communities with some tradition and enough prestige resist such chains, no matter how cult friendly.

This discussion of cult brands also gets at the heart of Naomi Klein’s arguments in No Logo. Do we want to live in a world where people regularly select and interact with cult brands? Does this kind of devotion detract from more authentic civic life?

Are strip malls at “the end of the road”?

One sociologist argues that while strip malls have seen much better days, they can be transformed in ways that they can once again be beneficial:

Strip malls — once anchors of postwar North American suburban neighbourhoods — are doomed, with thousands across Canada and the United States already derelict and eyed by land developers.

But at least one Canadian academic sees value in maintaining the ubiquitous local retailing plazas, and has amassed proposals such as adding community gardens or toboggan slides, or morphing them into giant bee hives or parking lots for food caravans.

“Strip malls were once the economic hubs of new suburbs,” said Rob Shields, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who received a government grant to rethink strip malls to benefit communities around them…

More than 11 per cent of strip malls in North America are derelict, representing 27 million square metres of vacant retail space, according to the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

You can see some ideas generated for “reinventing the strip mall” here. This sounds like it fits into a larger idea, retrofitting, where developers and planners take “failed” projects, such as strip malls or big box stores, and design more sustainable, more urban places.

A few more thoughts:

1. If the strip mall is indeed in inevitable decline, I wonder if anyone is tracking what happens to all of the old strip malls. Is there a common use for them or more frequent uses? Will a majority simply be demolished and replaced with something more profitable?

2. It would also be interesting to hear how suburbanites themselves perceive the decline of strip malls – do they prefer “power centers” or is there something lost when strip malls disappear? Perhaps many won’t rue the loss of strip malls because of their very functional design but there may be more who don’t like the disappearance of some of the businesses, like Radio Shack, that once thrived in strip mall size settings.

3. Are strip malls excellent places for small businesses to start and thrive? Perhaps they are not used in this way but I was trying to think of commercial uses that might be particularly suited to a strip mall.

Shop to feel altruistic this holiday season

Even as some people react negatively to big retailers moving up their Black Friday hours, perhaps there is hope for conquering Christmas commercialism: you can shop and feel altruistic.

Sociologist Keith Brown of Saint Joseph’s University said the holidays bring many motivations to buy, buy, buy — but beyond the sale prices and must-have items is something greater for consumers to consider.

“The current recession coincided with an ‘ethical turn’ in the markets,” Brown said in a statement…

“An increasing number of consumers from all socioeconomic segments are looking to pay it forward, but especially those who have been only minimally impacted by the recession,” Brown said. “They’re looking for ‘Made in America,’ ‘Fair Trade,’ or ‘Eco-friendly.’ They want to add a socially responsible dimension to their gift-giving. Many consumers sincerely want to make a difference in the world through shopping. Consumers like to give gifts that have a story about where the product came from, who made it and how the producer benefited by selling the object.”

Conversely, Brown said that the recipients often feel good, too.

Extra Christmas shopping bonus: the more you spend, the more you are helping the US economy!

This does alert us to the values that get attached to buying products.