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Street life after retail: 5 scenarios that imagine the future

A visual tour of how e-commerce and digitization might impact city streetscapes—for better or worse.

By Jesse Shapins, Eric Baczuk, and Johanna Greenbaum

A woman walks past several empty storefronts

(Matthew Ransom + Violet Whitney)

Early last week, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, Angela Ahrendts, proclaimed that the company’s stores aren’t stores at all any more: “We call them town squares.” That association isn’t especially new. Since the dawn of the pre-industrial city (think the agora in Ancient Greece), street-level commerce has been a key component of vibrant urban life. But Apple’s announcement does reflect the way urban retail is currently undergoing a significant transformation.

Over the last decade, the meteoric rise of online shopping has disrupted the day-to-day operations of brick-and-mortar retail across the U.S., affecting the viability of small mom-and-pop shops as well as giants like Barnes & Noble and McDonald’s. In some cities, the impact of e-commerce, long-term lease agreements, and soaring rents — which incentivize landowners to hold out for high-value retailers — have led to the papered windows and vacant streetscapes now characteristic of retail blight.

A strikingly different landscape of physical retail feels more inevitable every time we click on our carts. But in some places and sectors, retail footage is actually growing, as companies pivot to prioritizing the retail “experience” of the store, or the service it provides, over pushing products alone. From pop-up shops to maker spaces to local artisans, retail’s impact on the city is changing dramatically.

This shift could be a good thing, provided the new retail “experience” is less theme park and more 21st-century agora. After all, lively streets are the hallmark of great cities. The sidewalk is where people converge, converse, and exchange — not just goods and services but ideas and opinions. In an age when digital echo chambers threaten to undermine our openness, finding ways to enhance social cohesion and personal interaction on city streets has never been more vital.

So how can cities retain the vibrant street and sidewalk life that define great neighborhoods in a future when traditional retail, as we know it, may no longer exist?

To explore this question, we embarked on a thought experiment around how increasing digitization in the retail realm might impact urban streetscapes. We examined how innovation has changed the urban retail experience over time—from covered arcades to supply-chain logistics to the rise of suburban malls — and teased out the trends that could potentially reshape it moving forward. We explored old technologies and new, and considered how, as future technologies change the physical form of these new spaces, their relationship to the street will change, too. Using the principles of Design Fiction, we extrapolated these technological and social trends, paying close attention to “weak signal” behaviors and existing frictions, and imagined provocative near-future states.

What emerged from this exercise were five scenarios for the future of urban retail. These scenarios are not meant to predict the future but rather to spark conversation and debate: some are whimsical and exciting, others are unnerving, a few are both (as the future may well be). All potentially reflect a new normal. Ultimately, we hope they push cities and companies to think carefully about what the retail experience could become in the digital age, and about how to shape it for the good of the urban environment.

Scenario 1: Mutable Markets

Today, in response to rising rents, the pressures of online shopping, and the desire to have a presence in high-demand locations, smaller companies and web-first retail operations are increasingly turning to temporary spaces. This flexibility enables them to quickly set up their wares, get the word out about their brand, then pack up for somewhere else. Similarly, more permanent spaces are increasingly opening themselves up to outside programming to improve brand identity, offset costs, and attract new users.

In one future scenario, pop-ups are no longer the exception but the norm. Short-term leases need not require months. Thanks to transformable robotic furniture, retail operations pop up and down in a matter of minutes, if need be, changing a space from clothing store by day to yoga studio by evening to bar by night. Radically different spaces can also coexist; picture taco vendors next to handbags next to a bookshop-café. Each can take up more or less prominence according to customer demand.

Urban Impact: Positive. Digital wayfinding and social media on mobile devices encourage discovery in this ever-changing street. Flexible space encourages a diversity of customers and gazers throughout the day and night, bringing vibrancy to the city street. It can also reduce the cost barriers for physical retail, making a brick-and-mortar presence more viable for small businesses. The result could be a street retail scene that is endlessly surprising and offers something for everyone — a true local gathering point for the digital age.

Scenario 2: (up)Scaled

In the era of online shopping, high-end retailers offer ever more personalized services, often leveraging technology in their quest for a memorable or sticky shopping experience that can only be achieved in a physical space. These well-situated flagship stores often operate at a loss, existing only to cultivate brand identity and offer a bounty of instagram-able moments.

In another future scenario, as online shopping encourages most day-to-day purchases to go digital, shopping in physical locations becomes yet more extravagant. The in-store experience becomes a highly attentive and customized interaction, enabled by robots and artificial intelligence. As the store’s customer data gets bigger, its predictive insights get sharper. Think of a system that offers you fashion trends based on the movies or TV shows you’re watching, perhaps modeling them on a hologram of yourself as you sip a latte. Since there’s no inventory on site, every order is one-of-a-kind: make a purchase and watch it fabricated on-demand, or head home to await a drone delivery.

Urban Impact: Negative. In this scenario, the city shop becomes an elite fortress. It may appear accessible to everyone on the street, but in practice it is only accessible to the wealthiest residents or visitors who can afford to participate in this experience, and thus essentially turns public spaces into private enclaves. The upscaling of retail also negatively impacts local corner stores, which slowly give way to digital vending machines, undermining yet another community gathering point. Retail streets become less inclusive and more homogenous.

Scenario 3: Indie Guild

Technologies like 3D-printing and platforms like Etsy have made manufacturing increasingly democratized and local. No longer do you need to rely on huge infrastructures to set up shop; now you only need some low-cost equipment. And thanks to the influence of movements like “Buy Local,” handmade goods often carry more community impact and social cachet.

In a third future scenario, the virtual networks of Etsy enter the real world. Lower retail rents, combined with anti-corporate sentiments, lead makers and local start-ups to band together and set up shop in one location, where they can create their wares and sell them direct to consumer. As a side gig, professionals might take advantage of fabrication tools to make furniture, and aspiring designers might craft (or print) the fashion of the future. The low barrier to entry, and the shared cost of equipment, means any one can enter the guild, collaborate, and invent.

Urban Impact: Positive. The low barrier to entry and the variety in product offerings could not only encourage a vibrant, diverse street life but potentially contribute to the city’s overall economic resilience. The maker space itself could encourage interaction and collaboration by being open to the public during the day and open to events at night. Transparent design and a strategic location could also encourage passersby to witness the making-in-progress — and join in themselves.

Scenario 4: Truck-Mart

Shopping malls were once the socio-cultural epicenters of America. These commercial centers, located in spacious suburbias or along the fringes of urban centers, encouraged droves of Americans to get in their cars and spend a Saturday shopping. Today, the mall has become a victim of online shopping’s unbeatable convenience and competitive prices. While some are weathering the disruption by turning themselves into urbanistic, “lifestyle centers,” over 700 malls in the U.S. are struggling. Many have been abandoned while some have transformed entirely — into churches, medical centers, even housing.

In another future scenario, low-price retailers, seeking better returns for shareholders and lower prices for customers, abandon their commitment to big-box stores and last-mile delivery. Repositioning themselves as digital dispensaries, these retailers sell off the majority of their landholdings to property developers, who take full advantage of the underutilized land by constructing high-density, mixed-use developments. The retailers retain a small fraction of their original parking lots, where they continue to serve price-sensitive customers in a more expedited way: using robots to bundle orders, fetch items from shipping containers or trucks, and deliver them. You — or, perhaps, your self-driving vehicle — collect the order (purchased online) and drive home. The no-frills, drive-thru experience is complete.

Urban Impact: Negative. While it’s great for underutilized urban land to be developed for higher and better use, the streets and sidewalks around the Truck-Mart would become the domain of machines. If empty self-driving cars are sent out to run errands on a person’s behalf, city streets could quickly become overwhelmed — increasing congestion and exacerbating sprawl. The humanity of the exchange, and the magic of urban street life in these areas, would be lost.

Scenario 5: Community Commons

In the digital economy, work can be done from anywhere — and often is. At the same time, private and public realms are melding. Coffee shops now resemble living rooms; restaurants feel like home kitchens; co-working spaces have replaced the home office. The café is increasingly an everything space, where one can go to drink, eat, socialize, or even work. As rising rents force city residents into smaller living spaces, amenities that once characterized the private sphere must increasingly be shared.

In this scenario, a legislated tax-penalty for street-level vacancies encourages the leasing of spaces once devoted to ground-floor retail to community organizations, which may or may not use that space to sell anything at all. Renters band together to turn the ground floors of their apartment buildings into a string of common spaces; once-vacant storefronts now host a daycare, a senior health center, a space for receiving or returning online purchases, or anything else the neighborhood needs. The street becomes a vehicle for grassroots collaboration, potentially enhanced by digital social networking tools. Call it the anti-retail movement.

Urban Impact: Positive. Taken collectively, the Community Commons would serve diverse local needs, increasing foot traffic and the likelihood of casual encounters between resident neighbors. These publicly accessible spaces could encourage the extension of the public realm from the street into buildings. There is one caveat: without open programming or design, the commons could become more like private clubs and lead to uninviting streets.

The authors wish to recognize the other members of the retail futures team: Laura Capucilli, Vanessa Quirk, and Violet Whitney.