A few months ago I wrote a piece on retail for Architectural Review Australia, now published in the June 2011 issue as 'Local Rules: The Death (and Rebirth) of Retail'.
As is becoming common practice here, I'm posting the longer 'director's cut' version below. Thanks to Maitú Ward for commissioning the piece in the first place. It also gave me a chance to get my story straight about all this before I appeared on ABC Radio National's By Design show, talking about online retail in the context of what they called 'self-direction' e.g. airports where you check in by yourself.
If you're in Australia or thereabouts, do check out the physical version of the June 2011 Architectural Review Australia—it's always a good read, and this issue features a slew of different tangential perspectives on 'shopping', including writing from old colleagues, friends, cohorts and correspondents David Neustein, Claudia Perrin, Russell Fortmeyer, Lee Stickells, Maitú Ward and others.
The piece below is not actually 'just about retail', as it touches on distribution patterns, fabrication, local economies and localism, and of course cities—but this is partly as retail is so core to what cities are about. I don't mean that as any kind of paean to consumerism at all; far from it. More a recognition that cities are about exchange, either cultural or commercial (or both), and that the marketplace, and its descendants, has always been a core component as a result.
The article was written with Australia as the focal point, as you'd expect, and many of the specific examples are drawn from that culture, but its general arguments probably apply more widely, and draw from experience elsewhere too.
However, the Australian market is characterised by a few key players who dominate the scene, which makes for a particularly tasty comparison with both independent retailers and online shopping. They include 'self-made men retail characters-types' like Gerry Harvey and Frank Lowy, responsible for dominant consumer electronics stores and malls respectively; and the behemoths of Wesfarmers and Woolworths—aka Coles and Woolies—who exert extraordinary control over the everyday lives of Australians. Watch this short ABC-produced infodesign-heavy movie to see how they have far more influence than, say, Walmart does in the USA. Harvey in particular led an ill-advised campaign essentially against online retail itself—I know—last year, before doing a U-turn.
(I'm also posting this in light of the news that the brilliant bookshopkeeper James Daunt has been appointed to take over Waterstones. Also a conversation earlier today, spiralling out of the fact that we have some Ikea furniture (a bed) in a shipping container somewhere, travelling from Australia to Finland, and the thought occurs that Ikea could replace that physical shipping by simply sending a copy of the bed from the Espoo store, and picking up the old one in Sydney. A form of fabrication possible with their already distributed network of components. And also posting as a marker of enjoying the ongoing discovery of numerous small, independent stores here in Helsinki. That, combined with the fact that Sundays here are largely retail-free, and so you remember the joys of a weekend not engulfed in pervasive shopping, a sensation now alien to much UK or Australian life.)
Spoiler alert: the core argument of this piece, as so often here, more or less comes down to this:
"Physical experience had better be bloody good if it is to withstand the force of the internet. It now has to have a reason to exist, over and above simply being there by default."
And I write this as a positive and optimistic call-to-arms—as a design challenge, a strategic challenge—for those interested in digital/physical hybrids and systemic change, and from one who believes that the power of physical experience is essentially unrivalled.