How the Mutation of Main Street Is Reshaping Cities

Brick-and-mortar stores are surviving, but what they’re selling is changing.
June 2018
(Rendering from Nordstrom NYC)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
Senior Fellow at The Regional Plan Association in New York City

Retailers are middlemen, for the most part. They don’t usually make stuff themselves. Mostly they just buy it from elsewhere and then make it available to the passerby. Increasingly, of course, that shopper is virtual, surfing along an online street. Rather than heading downtown or to a suburban mall, customers fire up their computers or phone apps, make a purchase and then wait for the cardboard box to be delivered.

It’s hardly news that this trend endangers some brick-and-mortar stores, whether they sell pants, cat food, eyeglasses, mattresses, shoes, printers, televisions, novels, hammers or toothbrushes. It’s a fact city leaders must wrestle with as they watch their malls go dark and their Main Streets mutate into new roles -- or try to.

Martha M. Jenkins opened her Kitchenworks store in 1984 in Chapel Hill, N.C., and made money for more than three decades selling muffin pans, fish poachers, coffee makers and dish brushes. As online sales began to take off, she started her own retail website, while in the store she emphasized personal service -- even as she watched customers question a clerk for 30 minutes and then order an item online right in front of them. Her store closed this January. “The web is going to ruin regular retail,” Jenkins told me recently. “It is a tragedy, but probably unavoidable. It is now second nature to order online, and people can’t help it. You can combat it in a small local store, but it is taking more and more effort to keep people coming into your store.”

And the University Place mall where her store was located? Opened in 1973, it consists more and more of businesses selling services rather than things. You walk in and find people who will prepare your taxes, coif your hair, hem your pants or make a meal for you. It no longer has department stores. What’s true with a mall like University Place is also true for just about every Main Street. Where once stood hardware stores and clothiers now stand bars, coffee shops, beauty parlors and restaurants. Having a meal with friends is one of the few experiences that still can’t be made in China and ordered online.

So is all physical retail destined to die? Not necessarily. There are countertrends. Against predictions, for example, independent bookstores have been sprouting up all over the country, even though the books they sell are available for much less online. How can this be? I think it’s about trust, relationships and expert advice. I get most of my books electronically from the library, which my taxes pay for but is effectively free. But I also patronize these new physical bookstores. Through their selections and knowledgeable clerks, they “curate” my shopping experience, something that curiously seems more needed when almost everything is available at anytime online.

What’s true with books will be true with other things in which the personal touch is valued. You can still get handmade shoes and a tailored suit, for instance, but it will cost you.

Experiences are also key. People traveling for fun have the time and the money to shop. I often buy a new shirt, or even a piece of artwork, while on vacation, because I have the time and headspace to do so -- more than when I’m scurrying around in day-to-day life.

Money and travel will help explain the success -- if it is a success -- of the new Nordstrom department store that is scheduled to open next year in New York City. The Seattle-based chain is spending a reported half-billion dollars filling seven floors of a 1,500-foot skyscraper under construction on West 57th Street, as well as three floors of another building across the street.

The new Nordstrom, with its ultra-high-end merchandise, is in a part of the city sprouting soaring towers with apartments selling for astonishing sums, frequently to out-of-towners. Many of those multimillion-dollar apartments will be above the Nordstrom store. When the owners from Moscow, São Paulo or Dallas come to town, they may stop the elevator and buy a $2,000 sports coat -- something I don’t believe most New Yorkers will do.

There are other ways to reinforce street-level shopping habits. I visited small and large cities in Holland and Sweden last year, and all had thriving shopping streets seemingly untouched by the click-and-buy impulse. Paradoxically, all had laws requiring stores to close at a certain time, typically 6 p.m. I found myself admiring these laws and the lifestyle they helped promote: They emphasize that shopping is best a social experience, done with others, not in front of a computer at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m. I’d like to see some American town or city pass such a law and see how it goes.

None of these trends are simple or likely to be linear. But at the end of the day, I expect Main Street in all its forms to survive and thrive, even as it must by necessity change. We humans still are social animals, and there will always be the urge to go out and mingle and, while there, buy a little something.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall | Columnist | alex@rpa.org