Downtown: an obsolete technology

A major technological change is happening that impacts our towns and cities. It’s the technology used for retailing.

To set the stage, imagine the early 1900s. Back then, most retailing was done in owner-operated neighbourhood or country general stores or by itinerant traders.

Then retailing technology changed.

Timothy Eaton is a good example of the change. His department stores and catalogue selling gave him huge selling and buying advantages. It gave his customers much greater choice and quality at lower cost.

His department store put general stores under great pressure. Catalogues virtually wiped out itinerant traders. Downtown cores were strengthened as they became commercial centres with department stores, specialty niche shops, cafes, and offices.

In mid-century, retailing technology changed again. Mass ownership of automobiles altered cities and towns. First came suburbs. The plaza, a new retailing technology, was invented to service the suburbs.

It put the shops in a string near a big parking lot.

Hard on the heels of that technology came the neighbourhood mall. It put a roof over the street. Malls made it convenient for chains to replace mom-and-pop niche stores.

An outgrowth of the neighbourhood mall was the regional mall.

Downtown cores were a technology designed for the pre-auto era. With the advent of mass auto ownership, parking was scarce and expensive in downtown cores.

The cores couldn’t compete with the malls. They began to erode.

I went to visit Dauphin, Man. It’s my home town. I remember the vitality of Main Street. As I drove into town, where there once was a dairy farm I saw a regional mall.

I knew what I would find–Main Street with empty shop fronts, others showing wear and tear, a struggling downtown core.

Once again, retailing technology is changing. Stand-alone big box stores are threatening the malls. Just as the name indicates, these are low-cost big boxes. The goods and furnishings can be moved, shifted, and altered without having to touch walls. Sales staff are generalists.

Information technology provides almost instant inventory control from manufacturer to customer.

Cities or towns whose cores are obsoleting because of the changing retail technology shouldn’t focus energies on keeping the downtown for business. It’s too late. But there are alternative uses for these valuable areas.

Politicians, planners, and developers must begin with the assumption that the cores still have value. It’s the sewer, water, light, phone, and road infrastructure and renewable historic buildings. They can be converted to housing developments, health care facilities, or other service facilities.

Cities and towns that have not had their core obsoleted by the new technologies must be vigilant. It will be difficult.

Another technology is just around the corner–cybershopping. About 30 percent of households have an Internet connection. Soon the technology will be as simple and as common as the telephone.

What that technology will do to retailing is anyone’s guess. But it will have a big impact.

There are two barriers to facing up to the impact of the changing retailing technology. One is the search for quick-fix, short-term solutions.

The other is that our governments and corporations are not designed to attend to this kind of obsolescence. They are designed for flavour-of-the-moment, short-term action.

These changes require strategic thinking and planning. And strategy is always long-term.