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When you mess with shopping habits, people get mad. An avalanche of rightful indignation followed the announcement of Bodega, a startup founded by two ex-Google employees that would install shiny glass boxes selling odds and ends inside pre-existing buildings instead of independent corner stores. From the questionable name to the even-more-questionable business model to the veneer of gentrification — who would these actually be accessible to? — the company seems to epitomize so much of what we dislike about Silicon Valley interfering in our lives in the hopes of profit.
The product is insidious: It portends to keep track of purchases and install a box every 100 feet of urban space, disrupting local shops. But Bodega is only one of the smaller attempts to present retail as more than just a way to buy things, spinning shopping into a kind of replacement for public infrastructure as well as the communal institutions and experiences that we increasingly take for granted. Simply purchasing things isn’t enough anymore; we must inhabit the platforms that these companies construct, whether it’s Bodega, Apple, Google, or Amazon-Whole Foods. Retail brands are invading every aspect of our lives, though the companies would prefer you not notice the sneaky shift.
At Apple’s recent launch event, the most important announcement wasn’t the face-recognizing iPhone X — though that’s certainly what raised the most eyebrows, as it were — but the company’s rebranding of its glossy, glassy retail outlets as “town squares.” “We don’t call them stores anymore,” said senior vice president of retail Angela Ahrendts. Apple wants its outlets instead to be seen as community centers and gathering places. The stores’ scale — large tables, open space, scattered seating — as well as their design (no cash registers or lines, only employees with card readers) encourages the illusion that they’re something more like libraries. But the only reason people loiter there is if they’re waiting for a Genius Bar appointment or are considering buying or already own an Apple device.
No matter the branding, any building that sells something is, in fact, a store. Apple’s language presents being in a “town square” as inextricable from buying things, or thinking about buying things. In fact, Apple stores are like the sponsored content version of public space: advertising for the brand that would like to pass as something organic. It’s just that the same gleaming logo happens to be everywhere.
How did we get to the point that space is more important than stuff? By August 2017, UBS counted the shuttering of 6,300 stores in the United States. Given that the retail apocalypse is probably upon us, physical stores need to fulfill a different purpose for companies. Rather than providing a space for the monetary transaction that happens increasingly often online, they must become all-encompassing experiences that push customers to be part of the brand. The retail outposts can also act as branding for the company, projecting an aura of scale and technical capability to placate investors or shareholders.
If the store of the future doesn’t look like a store, it might be because it’s a store you never really leave. New Amazon bookstores base displays on the company’s internal data, organizing shelves by how many reviews the books get online or how far readers page into them on Kindle. The setup encourages shoppers to understand the store as an extension of the website rather than the other way around — you don’t have to feel bad about discovering a book in person and then buying it online. It’s also a brag about Amazon’s underlying technology and a passive threat to other retailers: join or perish.
Partly in response to Amazon’s dominance, we are facing an era of stores without stores, retail that claims not to be retail, because traditional retail can’t compete. Nordstrom’s new series of “Nordstrom Local” outlets won’t even stock products. Instead, they’ll house personal stylists for consultations, tailors for alterations, and a “central meeting space” with a juice bar. All the actual stuff is shipped in from elsewhere on request, a way of emphasizing abstract services — finding your personal style, providing a sense of community — that will be harder for Amazon to replace. Nordstrom labeled the new store design a “neighborhood hub.” Sounds familiar.
Retail everywhere is grasping for something larger. Over the many floors of Nike’s flagship building in Soho, you can buy things, sure. But you can also marvel at museum displays of footwear artifacts, immerse yourself in the brand aesthetics like it’s a MoMA art installation, and literally play basketball. (So much for public playgrounds.) At the Whole Foods in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the cafeteria above the grocery store floor becomes a de facto coworking space with a large nursery in one corner perpetually occupied by nanny groups and toddler birthday parties. A/D/O is a recently opened public “creative space” — cafe/office/studio — in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that’s ultimately funded by BMW to push its tiny car concept, MINI, into the sustainable urbanism arena. These may be appreciated in neighborhoods that lack public space, but still, they are stores.
And the stores-without-stores are watching you, just as companies are tracking your clicks online. Whether it’s via video cameras, face recognition, or in-store wifi tracking, brands know what you’re doing in physical spaces, and the more information they have — how often you come to Nordstrom to consult with your stylist, say — the better they can sell things to you. Stores become a cheap way of producing data that can be used to refine their own business or sold to other companies.
This is another reason we get freaked out about concepts like Bodega, which could easily turn into a data-and-logistics operation á la Amazon. Buying things is a personal act, whether it’s a shirt at a fashion boutique, a book at a bookstore, or a sandwich at the (real) bodega. We don’t want to feel too targeted or too explicable as consumers, even though we might be. Yet startups pitch themselves as infinitely scalable based on the idea that they can know us better than anyone, even, at times, ourselves: “Each community tends to have relatively homogenous tastes, given that they live or work in the same place,” Bodega cofounder Paul McDonald told Fast Company. The homogeneity seems particularly likely because Bodega will doubtless be installed first in high-income spots — an Equinox gym lobby, for example — instead of any kind of diverse, public setting.
Eventually we hit an uncanny valley where Apple or Amazon or BMW tries a little too hard to act like a public utility rather than a luxury goods retailer and we rebel against it. Unless we don’t notice in the first place: A world of Apple parks, Uber buses, and Bodega bodegas is possible as tech companies continue building platforms that undergird everything, not just their own widgets.
Look around, though, and the pre-existing system is already serving us pretty well. Actual bodegas manage to serve their neighborhoods without needing venture capital or a team of developers. At each different corner store, you might find off-brand organic kombucha, Korean face masks, or a particularly obscure chip flavor. The store already knows you, it already provides a local community, and you can buy whatever you want. It’s also a store you can actually leave.