Urban retail neighbourhood of the future

Towns lament the coming of big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. Their cut-rate competition changes the nature of shopping and shopping neighbourhoods. To stop it, towns sometimes block the arrival of such stores. Now web competition is changing the landscape even more. But our shopping areas are still “designed” with the old thinking in mind. Some of them are being “redesigned” the hard way by market forces. Can we get what we really want?

We must realize that it isn’t Wal-Mart who closes down the mom’n’pop store. It’s the ordinary people, who used to shop at it and switch to Wal-Mart who close it down. They have a choice, and indeed in some areas such stores survive.

It’s time for us to accept that the more efficient remote stores are here, and aren’t going away. We can complain about nasty tactics, poor labour practices and even anti-trust violations, but the truth is they are still more efficient. We must come to learn that there are just certain products people are going to care more about price than proximity on, and you just won’t sell many of them in small local stores.

On the other hand, walking to stores is really good. It’s much quicker, better for the environment and studies show people who live in urban areas where they can walk to things are thinner and fitter than suburbanites. In fact, while we have mostly pushed with zoning laws to have small pockets of retail inside our residential seas outside of downtowns, there are arguments to mix housing and retail much more closely.

What do we want within a short distance?

  • A variety of restaurants, both everyday inexpensive ones and a few occasional fancy places.
  • Cafes, bars and other hangout spots
  • A small hardware store
  • Two modest grocery outlet
  • A late-hours convenience store (may be one of the grocery outlets)
  • A drugstore/pharmacy
  • A multibank ATM (very rare today)
  • Post office/shipping store/Business Services
  • Laundry
  • Local Depot (new concept)

This subset, repeated frequently can actually be close enough together that there is competition for walkers’ business between like stores in two adjacent neighbourhoods, to give all the benefits competition provides.

More scattered, not nessarily each in every neighbourhood

  • Salon/Spa
  • Dentist
  • Bookstore/Video Store (Sorry, these are losing to internet methods)
  • Full bank
  • Electronics and appliance accessories
  • Post office/shipping store/Business Services

Some stores it just doesn’t matter where they are, as the world is either going to move to online/big-box shopping for their products, or you only shop at them rarely enough that it doesn’t matter a lot where they are:

  • Cell Phone
  • Clothing
  • Many specialties

Not saying you can’t have these stores in neighbourhoods, in fact they can give them character, but that is the reason to have them rather than the need for frequent trips. (Cell phone stores must have a high margin, there are huge numbers of them when you consider most people only buy 1 every year or two.)

These stores will simply not stock (or at least not devote prime shelf space) to the items people are buying at the big-boxes. And they will charge more for them, but a little competition will keep that within reason.

The “Local Depot” is a new type of facility that I think would be interesting and has its own page.

Most of this (not the depots) is going to happen anyway, due to the forces of the market, and is already happening. Stores really have no choice but to adapt to what their customers do, and customers are going to big-boxes once every week or two. Selling the sort of durable goods that people don’t need right away isn’t going to cut it.

There’s more that’s needed for our future city that can come from new technology. In the future I’ll be writing some ideas about 3-dimensional streets using closed-circuit HDTV panels at street level, ideal urban densities and more.

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His name is Brad Templeton. You figure it out.
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