Headline Left By The Wayside

This is an interesting post. Let’s suss out the ramifications.

Recall here that (while it’s making the news these days for its leasing terms), Uber’s long-term plan still involves fleet automation. Walmart partnering with Uber and Lyft for grocery delivery represents an obvious angle for suburban automation.

In this model, which we’ll call a “showroom and delivery” retail model, most suburban retail needs are reduced to warehouses that send out orders via fully- or semi-automated fleets. (What’s likely is that drivers become minimum-wage workers whose main skill is customer service at the point of delivery–not even glorified delivery boys.)

One of the things I mentioned in my first post on automation was increasing efficiency of the road system, and this is part of that. The automated fleet is able to be deployed and redeployed, or heuristically deployed, more like Fed Ex or UPS than anything else. It also gradually eliminates errand needs, as instead of going to the store one can simply order online and have comestibles delivered to you. Even without automation, this is an ongoing change.

I am skeptical of how far-ranging the change will be. After all, this isn’t the first time this sort of sea change has happened. That honor would be the late 19th century, when the Sears catalog was first distributed.

Consider! That was the Amazon of its day. With a Sears catalog, you could buy a house (yes, quite literally a house) and everything for it, from furniture to clothes to a variety of, yes, foodstuffs. You didn’t need to leave the house to buy damn near anything anymore — just send the order off to Sears and, in 6-8 weeks, the package’d arrive. With the Sears catalog, how could the town carpenter stay in business? the clothier? haberdasher? dry goods seller?

Yet they did. Indeed, a lot of those small mercantile businesses became bundled in the grand department stores of the early 20th century, but enough of them remained on Main Street to keep the merchant class fueled. No, what eventually killed the merchants were the malls — and more specifically the chains that filled them. And Sears itself moved from being purely a mail-order business to a department store chain, first on Main Streets of middling prominence — and later in those same malls. For almost a century, Sears was the country’s largest, most successful, and most prominent retailer (even if it’s going the way of other early-20th-century mainstays like Woolworth’s nowadays).

The reason is, of course, that retail prognosticators continually undervalue the experience of shopping, and the meaning it still has in American life. Shops are a parade of third places, and part of the point of shopping, especially in the era when households had only one breadwinner, was to be seen out and about. The reason why the mall was what eventually killed the Main Street haberdasher is that it was, in essence, a third place made up of other third places, designed to be more attractive than Main Streets, with their traffic and weather, could ever be (at least by 1950s sensibilities). It, not the Sears catalog or even the department store, was a true 1-to-1 replacement for Main Street.

This is why we’re likely to see a rise of showroom-type retail, places to go first and foremost to browse and be seen. While automation + just-in-time deliveries will likely make staples trips (like those to the grocery store) obsolete, retail for the experience of retail has already begun to come alive again in American urban cores. This is the core essence of the boutiques that now line Main Streets in fashionable cities, and why low-margin retailing is dying even as small purveyors are offering handcrafted knickknacks behind every other window you walk past. These places are showrooms as much as stores.

Automation will speed up that process. The question is: How will this process play out in autocentric suburbs, where driving is a requirement to go much of anywhere? The critical mass of the Main Street environment has proven necessary for showroom retailing to work, and in the most dispersed places that critical mass just doesn’t seem to be there.

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