|TMP Collection: |
Big Box Retail in the New Economy:
Place-making in the Era of the Electronic Milkman
|“The solution to the big-box dilemma is simple: Design for future community development around people.”|
Can you remember a time when the milkman came around every day or two, and delivered fresh milk and dairy products to your door? For baby boomers and older, the milkman was a neighborhood institution. He could always be seen driving his delivery truck around the neighborhood. I remember one day actually riding with the milkman when I was about eleven years old. I appreciated the way he greeted anyone who came to the door, and if there was no one home, he would place the household’s pre-ordered goods in an insulated box by the side or back door.
The way we buy things, especially dairy goods, has changed significantly over the years. Today, most people buy their dairy goods at the grocery store or, when time gets short, at the local gas station or convenience store. Frequent deliveries of consumer products from a small truck running through the neighborhood are virtually nonexistent these days. Part of this change is an improvement in pasteurization, merchandising, and storage of dairy products to a point where there is little risk in such perishables spoiling. However, another is increasing profitability for dairy distributors when their customers travel to the store. As long as people drive to and from the store, the costs of home delivery are borne by each and every customer. Today, all the dairy products we consume on a daily basis are warehoused for us to go and get in our own cars.
Even the grocery store has changed dramatically in form and function since the era of the milkman. Back then, we would fill out a pre-printed order card for milk, eggs and butter for the next few days, and place it in the box. The next day before school let out, the insulated aluminum box would be filled with cold milk to go with our afternoon cookies. Mom would drive the station wagon once a week to the local grocery store for other foods and sundries. Nowadays we strap the kids and ourselves in the car, drive on congested roadways to the big-box stores, walk a quarter mile to get what we need, pack up the car again, drive congested roadways home and unload the car. Increasingly, these repetitive trips are taking their toll—in time, energy, stress, cost, and quality of life.
QVC and infomercials, as well as electronic banking, tax filing and news reporting, are popular and recent phenomenon. They are all indications that convenient access to just about anything is getting closer to home. Increasing catalog sales and delivery service business revenues are direct evidence of buying decisions and delivery being brought to our doorstep. Home grocery delivery is becoming increasingly attractive to customers with little time for routine grocery shopping. Companies like Simon Delivers in the Twin Cities and Peapod in the Chicago area are currently experiencing an extraordinary increase in demand for home delivery service. In response, their selection of available products has improved, and so has the sophistication of their delivery service. Popular retailers such as Best Buy, Pottery Barn and The Gap are expanding their catalog and Web presence as an alternative to in-store shopping. Even Target has a link within the Amazon.com Web site, and Wal-Mart has its own online shopping site, Walmart.com.
We are just beginning to see large-volume retailers of household necessities offer turnkey online ordering and convenient delivery. This trend has some beneficial consequences, including reduced trip generation on local roadways, and extra time customers can spend with their friends and family. It has also had some detrimental consequences as well, including local citizens becoming increasingly disengaged from community life.
Ten years ago, we didn’t even know what online shopping was. Ten years from now, given the current momentum of computer technology in both ordering and delivery, how will our personal shopping habits change? What will be the role of big-box stores in this new economy? How will we come to experience shopping as a daily activity?
Perhaps the most important question is this: How will a consistent increase in online shopping change the way we think about urban development and how we experience our everyday environment?