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The Future of Bricks and Mortar Shopping in the Age of COVID 19



Even before the COVID- 19 epidemic ravished the US economy, the retail industry was in dire straits. Online or “non-store” purchasing had cut into traditional retail shopping such that in February the US Commerce Department reported online sales narrowly exceeded 50% of consumer purchasing including department stores, warehouse clubs and super-centers, excluding auto sales, restaurants, clothing and accessory stores. ttps://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/02/online-shopping-officially-overtakes-brick-and-mortar-retail-for-the-first-time-ever.html


“Clicks” have been slowly eating up market share in the past two decades, taking enormous tolls on bricks and mortar shopping centers and downtown main street. The COVID-19 epidemic has only hastened the apparent demise forcing more businesses to move online. National retail store vacancy hovered at 10% at the end of 2019. https://www.reis.com/retail-preliminary-trends-q1-2019/ By the end of this pandemic, the Small Business Administration projects 50% of the nation’s small business may be gone. https://www.thestreet.com/personal-finance/pandemic-recession-impact-small-businesses


How will shopping centers and Mom ‘n’ Pop merchants survive this two-prong attack? The answers are complex but crucial for both consumers and the community itself. Whether it is a strip mall, Main Street or a vast shopping center, it must become a destination and offer consumers more variety of experiences. They must become multi-functional hybrids that instantly support the retail changing image in order to benefit the consumer, landlord and municipality.


When a landlord loses a tenant, don’t fill the space with the same. The marketplace is changing, and landlords and shopping centers need to keep up by enhancing the browsing experience with color and action.


High schoolers are not the only ones cruising the malls. Boomers and couples find the mall date-night invigorating. Stores must provide entertainment, special events and unique deals to draw the community, not just a 10% discount and a dancing clown.


The most important advantage of the consumers shopping experience is the “touchy-feely” aspect of the product punctuated with human interaction. That does not exist on the Internet. Enticing the consumer to purchase and not return the merchandise is essential to the retailer. Delivery can also be a distinctive advantage to even the smallest retailer. Fast pick-and-go checkout and delivering before one gets home will be the calling card of the future.


The biggest advantage retailers often forget is to be a niche. I remember when Home Depot came to Napa and the uproar from the local merchants was deafening. Home Depot is here and local hardware and construction product providers are thriving, up until March anyway.


The big picture on the horizon will be introducing housing into retail centers and malls. Multi-story apartments with young local workers and even starter families will find “living-over-the-store” a new life.


Senior living in downtown areas is a complex issue. Developers say seniors don’t spend money so don’t invite them. But seniors have advantages such as, not driving as much so fewer parking requirements and they require younger employee’s assistance, all of whom are consumers. Placing them downtown will put them in a vibrant and secure environment. We can encourage seniors to be an intimate part of our community and retail centers will be great development opportunities.


Bricks ‘n’ mortar’s future will be people as the mortar, not the bricks. Developers will shape the bricks.


Chris d. Craiker AIA/NCARB


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