Main Street retail is vanishing under pressure from online shopping and rising rents. There are good reasons to save it.
Since it started back in 2010 I have been a supporter of Small Business Saturday as an alternative to Black Friday. Back then, it was the big box stores and Walmart that were sucking the life out of our main streets. That's why historic preservation organizations all got on board. Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust for Historic Preservation wrote:
When we invest in small businesses, we are investing in Main Streets - the places that give our towns and cities a unique sense of place. By celebrating Small Business Saturday and shopping at independent businesses, everyone can play a part in strengthening our economy and supporting revitalization on our Main Streets.
Urban activists and environmentalists should be serious about supporting small businesses; as I wrote in my first post on Small Business Saturday, "dense, walkable, resilient towns and cities are a key component of getting off oil, and viable main street retail is the key to having vibrant main streets." Peter Calthorpe has written:
Urbanism is, in fact, our single most potent weapon against climate change, rising energy costs, and environmental degradation.
On MNN, I make the case that you should support Small Business Saturday and every day, because that's where our kids work.
So this Small Business Saturday, support your neighborhood stores and help keep your Main Street alive. And look at who is behind the counter; it's probably a millennial or even a Generation Z kid on their first gig. Put your money in their pocket instead of Amazon's.
It was one thing to be up against the big box stores and Walmart, because people were often willing to pay a bit more for the convenience. But now, retail is being killed by very convenient online shopping and the Amazon Death Star. It is happening all over. In New York City, almost 20 percent of storefronts are empty. In the New York Times:
“When you walk the streets, you see vacancies on every block in all five boroughs, rich or poor areas — even on Madison Avenue, where you used to have to fight to get space,” said Faith Hope Consolo, head of retail leasing for Douglas Elliman Real Estate, who said the increase in storefront vacancies in New York City had created “the most challenging retail landscape in my 25 years in real estate.”
There are other factors; in many cities, gentrification has caused a serious increase in retail rents. In Toronto, where I live, politicians are afraid to raise taxes on residential voters so they pile it onto businesses, which is why so many stores are turning into apartments.
In the UK, they are calling it a retail apocalypse. When I was in Edinburgh recently, I noticed that every second store was some social service second-hand store. Sarah Butler writes in the Guardian:
It is not just about shoppers preferring to buy online – although 20% of fashion sales, where the pressures are perhaps worst, have now moved to the internet. There’s been a seismic shift in the way we spend our time and money. Social media, leisure, travel, eating out, eating in – using takeaways and delivery services – and technology are all taking time and cash that would once have gone straight to shops.
Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson notes that the businesses that are left are mostly service.
Walking around the Upper East Side, where I live, I find it striking how many of the establishments still standing among the many darkened windows are hair salons, nail salons, facial salons, eyebrow places, and restaurants. What’s the one thing they have in common? You won’t find their services on Amazon. The internet won’t cut my hair, and not even the most homesick midwesterner goes online to order a deep dish to be delivered from Chicago to New York. Online shopping has digitized a particular kind of business—mostly durable, nonperishable, and tradable goods—that one used to seek out in department stores or similar establishments. Their disappearance has opened up huge swaths of real estate.
This is why Small Business Saturday should really be Small Business Everyday. Alex Steffen once wrote:
There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.
Key to eliminating the need to drive is giving people places to go that are pleasant and walkable and fun. That's what small businesses can provide. That's where the innovation is, that's where the good beer is, that's where you can get things fixed instead of having to buy new. That's why people want to live in cities instead of suburbs. And for these places to survive, we all have to support them.
So go out and shop on Small Business Saturday, and think about making it Small Business Everyday. And if American Express feels too corporate to you (although they deserve great credit for starting Small Business Saturday and the Shop Small campaign), there is always the more radical Reoccupy Main Street.