Don't Let Local Stores Die
When we read headlines proclaiming the death of retail, we shiver. When we see empty retail spaces in our neighborhoods, we worry. Local retail is crucial to a community’s character and identity. Internet shopping is, of course, here to stay but it is not a substitute. Retailers need to think hard about how to differentiate themselves from their internet competition, and to engage us in different ways. And we need to support them.
Retail stores are important for the look and feel of our neighborhoods. Imagine an urban neighborhood without retail shops on the street. Imagine towns and villages without main streets to draw you back again and again. Sandwich shops, dry cleaners and shoe repair shops are essential, but are quick ins and outs. Stores with proprietors who care about their curated wares, with sales people who know their products and take care of us, homegoods stores with beautiful crafts, clothing stores with curated style--well, those are the ones where we linger, and make repeat visits. Those are the establishments that give a place its vibe. Like Sara Japanese Pottery. A jewel of a store. Its sales personnel know their stuff and are interested in helping you.
Retail stores serve our psyche, too. Window shopping--outside or in--gives us a break from our screens, and from reality. For a moment, we can concentrate on which jewels we would buy if we actually were the Queen of Sheba. We love the serendipity of seeing or trying on something unexpected that makes us feel delightful. We love to touch and feel and roam through racks or stacks, hunting for that one perfect thing. Shopping in local stores with daughters can also be the impetus for candid conversations, or laughs--that is, when they don’t result in tears of frustration because none of the dozens of pairs of jeans fit just right.
We love to window shop at ABC Carpet and Home. Visiting the beautiful store is always enlightening. We can see exquisite things from all over the world that we can’t find anywhere else. Being a visual and tactile destination is key to its identity, and to its market niche. ABC recognizes, though, that it is competing with the immediate gratification of internet purchases. It just announced free same day delivery for purchases over $250.
We also love tactile experiences. For example, with the advent of the internet, choosing kitchen and bathroom fixtures and appliances has become a matter largely of price. Pirch, a new kind of store in Soho, wants to change that. Pirch thinks we should evaluate things which we all use every single day on more than just cost. So, at Pirch, you can actually take a shower using the showerhead you are considering. You can cook on a stove you saw in a design magazine. You can wash a dish in a sink, or in a dishwasher. Pirch gives you touch and feel. It’s genius. And the elegant fixture you acquire there is not necessarily more expensive.
And then of course there’s technology. We read about a new Amazon app that lets you walk out with your purchases without stopping at a cashier. A virtual reality technology that would let you hold up an item to check out color and fit without the need to actually try it on. Robots that can fetch, and drones that can deliver. Facial recognition technology that creates displays to suit our preferences. That all sounds interesting, but we want tech to improve, not displace, the local retail experience. We want tech to enhance beautiful stores that delight us with their design and their wares. Like the Apple stores, cool and inviting.
Great brick and mortar retailers, small and large, define our communities. Patience, understanding, care--helping us find the perfect gift or the perfect dress or to learn how to use the latest gadget--these have always been the hallmarks of great retailers. To survive, they need our patronage. When we use retail stores to look and feel, but not to purchase--otherwise known as "showrooming"--we undermine our local proprietors. Let’s not forget the impact on our communities of the everyday choices we make about what to buy and from whom, and let's keep our communities lively.