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The Future of the Retail Landscape

Stores are an integral part of the cityscape. So how will online shopping change what we see in the coming years?
December 13, 2018, 10am PST | Camille Fink
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Wayne County Main Street
Kenneth Sponsler

Courtney Humphries considers ways cities will change as e-commerce and related delivery systems continue to evolve. She starts by taking a look back as how cities got to this point—from department stores in downtowns to suburban strip malls and then large, enclosed malls and big-box retail.

Shopping became separated by zoning and the need for shoppers to access store location by car. "Mixed-use developments can be seen as an attempt to suture earlier tears in the urban fabric left by 20th-century planning. Meanwhile, investment and affluent residents have returned to urban centers, and many of the showpiece malls in suburbs are struggling," says Humphries.

Today online shopping seems both ubiquitous and commonplace, even though, as Humphries points out, online purchases make up less than 10 percent of retail transactions. Still, physical stores are getting smaller and the demand for warehouse space continues to increase.

In addition, brick-and-mortar stores have felt the pressure to deliver something more in the realm of an experience, which extends from the store into the downtown and surrounding areas. "[Robert] Gibbs says that small retail stores can’t just offer standard goods you could easily get delivered; they need to offer something local, fresh, or luxurious, with excellent customer service. What’s outside the store is also important," reports Humphries. 

As for what the future holds in store, futurists are predicting everything from residential buildings designed with storage spaces specifically for deliveries to stores that function largely as warehouses. A crop of empty storefront spaces could also provide a wealth of opportunities for new and innovative uses—or not.

"Inequalities in the retail landscape could also worsen, with lower-income neighborhoods getting more shuttered storefronts and dollar stores, and higher-income areas getting beautiful landscaping and cultivated 'experiences,'" says Humphries.

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Published on Thursday, December 6, 2018 in The Boston Globe
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