Are our local shopping centres doomed by technology?

The geography of surnames in the US (click)

In an interesting article on Crikey, Guy Rundle riffs off the Borders bankruptcy to ask if technological change will inevitably destroy local strip shopping centres:

The whole centrality of the shop is changing. It is no longer a necessary place, and so the high street no longer acts as the spatial core of a community. At some point a whole series of mainstream shops will succumb to insufficient, intermittent demand. Everyone will want to know they are there, but no-one will use them enough.

Whether Borders succumbed to poor management, competition from e-commerce, the dead hand of the parallel importing restrictions, or the fall-off in consumer spending, there’s no question that the nature of shopping is changing profoundly.

For example, I bought my first lot of ten novels from Amazon back in 1994 and have purchased many more books from various on-line retailers since. Whenever I have the option, I now download e-books to read on my e-reader in preference to hard copies.

I started home-banking in 1994 and now visit the bank maybe four times a year max (I hate being paid by cheque!). My wife and I have bought so much stuff on eBay we have Turquoise Star status. The household increasingly downloads movies via T-Box rather than hire DVDs and all our music is purchased through iTunes. We book our travel on-line and even negotiated the purchase of a car over the net.

Guy Rundle foresees that these sorts of changes will extend to the local supermarket and beyond, driven by improvements in on-line ordering and home delivery. I expect that once the public has confidence the problems with e-commerce – like affordable and secure home delivery and safe payment systems – have been overcome, many people will surely choose to use their time for higher value activities than routine consumer shopping.

Mr Rundle fears that if the boring but essential services like supermarkets are lost to the high street, then specialist stores like bookshops that rely on passing trade from ‘anchor tenants’ will also go under. He says:

The wider question, in terms of future life, is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all – as the last shared, necessary space dissolves

I don’t think the high street is in any imminent danger. It’s likely to change but I doubt it will die. Not all the changes will necessarily be bad.

I know shopping is supposed to be ‘experiential’ and an end in itself, but no matter how marketers trick it up, it’s still essentially about consumption. After the 100th trip the glamour of the supermarket fades and there’re only so many times I can browse Borders or my local bookstore (I still have one!) before it becomes repetitive.

Some people will regret the decline in opportunities for incidental meetings that might follow if high street shops were to start closing. That’s one way to look at it, although I think it’s a little romantic – the personable grocer was replaced by the Coles cashier a long ago.

An alternative perspective is that a large-scale shift to on-line shopping would save precious time. That time could be devoted to more frequent  enriching exchanges with people one is intimately connected with, like family and friends.

To some extent we will continue to be drawn to the high street by activities that can’t easily be accessed on-line. Visiting health-related services is one such activity and personal services like hair dressing are another. Some clothes and some bodies require a personal fitting and the appearance of jewellery might be hard to convey on a screen. Some people will always want to eyeball the fruit and vegetables before they buy even if most of us are prepared to rely on a trusted (and probably more skilled) supplier.

But I think the key reason we’ll continue to patronise the high street is to meet with other people, mostly those we already know, like family, friends and business colleagues. This is much deeper than incidental contacts – this is actually engaging with other people.

There will be a continuing demand for places to meet, especially restaurants and bars. Households have been out-sourcing more and more of their food supply for decades. While they can always get food home-delivered, dining is a social activity that increasingly includes people from beyond the immediate household.

There’s some research on whether or not improvements in communications technology will replace the need for face-to-face contact. An interesting finding is that rather than substituting for it, the new technologies seem to increase the demand for face-to-face contact. Mobile phones, SMS, instant messaging, Facebook and e-mail make it easier to communicate with others and thus to set up opportunities to meet in person.

Some of that increase in face-to-face contact will take place in the home, but the last 50 years suggest much of it will be in the public domain. There will also still be plenty of scope for incidental meetings with acquaintances and strangers as we stroll along the high street to our favourite restaurant or bar, but the real value will be enriching and affirming relationships with people with whom we have a deeper connection.

P.S. I first used an ATM circa 1980 – at the North Sydney branch of the CBC bank. There was a limit of around $30 and there was only one machine. It was essentially a way of getting cash after hours.

9 Comments on “Are our local shopping centres doomed by technology?”

  1. Mahyar says:

    No illegal downloading? You must be the only Australian!

    I have no problem with the diminution of Australian retail. For the most part, they’re just the middle men for Chinese wares, so by removing them, we’re just making life easier for everyone (except them). The next logical step is to get rid of Coles and Woolworths: Ambitious I know.

    And if it’s social interaction people want, they’ll find it without having to go shopping for it. Community garden anyone? Restaurant? Pub?

  2. kymbos says:

    With some retail services becoming obsolete, and time saved shopping by using the net, perhaps we may see a resurgence in genuine public open space, rather than the corporatised retail venues they have been trending towards. Optimistic, but wouldn’t it be nice?

    St Kilda redevelopment, anyone?

  3. Peter Hill says:

    Now that the banks and post offices are moving away from shopping strips into shopping malls, the shopping strip becomes full of cafes and restaurants. As happened in Glebe Point Road after the Broadway shopping centre opened.

    I suppose the cafe is a form of pubic open space, even if privately owned, like shopping malls. I agree with Rundle that what we are losing is a shared necessary space. Cafes are no agora, but it has probably been a long time since a commercial shopping strip has been too.

  4. Bruce Dickson says:

    Well canvassed Alan.

  5. This is a question that is troubling me very much. Councillors at Port Phillip are dedicated to the health and vitality of neighbourhood shopping stips. Some retailers report that people just go into the shop to try things on, and then go and purchase on line. On the other hand, service orientated businesses thrive. I am hugely interested in what your other readers think

    • Certainly something that happens quite a bit. I recently went to purchase snowboard boots.

      The salesman wouldn’t start to serve me unless I agreed to buy them on the day if I found something that fit. I thought the negative customer service was pretty shocking and said as such and he responded that hours were wasted on people that insisted they’d be back the next day or so, only to never return. Presumably to buy online.

  6. […] the suburbs – have pretty clearly voted with their feet for shopping in malls (see here, here, here, here and here). That seems like a rational and inevitable response to the prevailing cost of […]

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