Where have all the shoppers gone?

This weekend, I spit up my coffee laughing at a Saturday Night Live segment lampooning over-the-top “Black Friday” sales events.

I wonder if future generations of Americans will laugh at this. As Seth Godin and others have observed, the era of race-to-the bottom retail pricing is coming to an end. Brick and mortar retailers who compete primarily on price are waging a losing war with online retailers. Will the shopping stampede mentality be recognizable in ten or twenty years? I doubt it.

Interestingly, this trend can be observed in real time. The Strong Towns weblog challenged its followers to document parking lot conditions on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A brief scan of the pictures uploaded using their #blackfridayparking tag shows countless acres of empty asphalt. (At a public meeting earlier I once heard a municipal engineer proclaim that requiring a parking lot to serve the maximum potential attendance for a stadium was like “building for Easter Sunday.” I wonder if he would extend this thinking to retailers.)

As a planner this trend leaves me with a few unanswered questions:

  • what will happen to this under-utilized retail space?
  • how much will retail employment shrink?
  • how will cities of the future link their virtual economies (online shopping) with physical spaces?

[p.s. the title of this post was inspired by the Paula Cole song, Where have all the cowboys gone?]