Good coffee. And good food.
Every once in a while we hear reports and musings on the “future of retail.” The retail industry expands and contracts in time with the general economy, and in our current period of growth, these reports are back in the blogosphere.
One of the interesting trends – or more accurately non-trends – is the ideas of the “future” have not changed dramatically in the past 15 years that we’ve been working with retail brands. In the late 90’s, with the dramatic commercialization of the internet, the prognosis was that bricks-and-mortar retail was dead. Best pricing and the sheer convenience of shopping online would win out over traditional retail locations. What little bricks and mortar remained would be focused more on “experience,” and not be a revenue generator, per se, but a key component in a larger brand strategy. Fast forward 15 years, and we’re hearing almost the same prognostications. “Experience,” above all, is a key driver in select new retail locations, and Amazon and Alibaba, with their same-hour drone delivery will make most traditional shopping obsolete.
An interesting related note is the not-so-massive changes due to technology. Square has re-shaped POS transactions, to be sure, and now every retailer can check you out with an iPad. You can now use apps to better connect to brands on the run. But the Minority Report-like future visions and technology shake-ups in retail, have not happened. If the last 15 years have taught us anything, it’s that we’re still a rather predictable society. It’s more of a Jerry Maguire-type scenario, “show me the money.”
As more and more wealth flows into urban areas (itself a massive topic to be explored in this new Gilded Age), the future of urban retail, at least, is “more of it.” If I’m to take the “insight” from a recent ULI symposium on this subject, oligarchs will be shopping in the subway station at Columbus Circle, the Lower East Side is fertile ground for massive new retail, and, shocker, Brooklyn is really going places. Cities change, of course. That is in their very nature. It’s just a bit disappointing to hear lip-service from the biggest retail developers in New York about “being authentic” with tenants and employees, in the voice of Cuba Gooding, Jr. For our more prosaic needs, there will no doubt be a Citibank and CVS. But will there be a dry cleaner and a hardware store? Will there be a corner bodega?
Experience IS the buzzword that supports new development, of course, and we have seen slow and incremental growth in this direction. Stand-alone brands are introducing a wider range of amenities in their stores, from highly curated merchandise to cafes. The new Shinola stores, as one example among many, personify this trend. At their new flagship in TriBeCa, you can shop their line of watches and bicycles, but also peruse amazing-hand-crafted products from Detroit and grab a delicious café latte. If you want an experience now-a-days, add coffee.
Following this path, the most noticeable trends in experience retail have been in food. The rise of the “upscale food court” has been a great model to watch. It seems every month there’s a new venue that launches new chefs, lets established chefs try new concepts, and most importantly, gives the masses an amazing selection of really great food. We all have our favorites: Chelsea Market, Gotham West, Smorgasburg, Plaza Food Hall, Union Market (DC), the Packing District (Southern CA), Ferry Building (SF). The list goes on and on. Or should we just agree on Eataly?
So what is the “future of retail?” The answer is as analog and old-fashioned as it gets. We are human after all. Good coffee. And good food.