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TMP Article:
The Big Box Dilemma

‘It is my hope that shifts in consumer preference will cause these retailers to address commonly held design values much differently than they have become accustomed to, if for no other reason than to compete for consumer dollars.’

Rich McLaughlin
Minneapolis, MN
July, 2003
Big Box Retail in the New Economy:
Place-making in the Era of the Electronic Milkman


As more everyday goods and services can be ordered online and delivered directly to the consumer’s door at less expense than personal automobile travel, the role, and perhaps the form, of big-box retail centers will change. The big-box dilemma for local governments is this: How do we design for large-volume retailing, for which there is still significant demand, in an era when home delivery becomes a more convenient alternative to driving for frequently purchased goods and services? How will high volume, warehouse retailers, and their host communities, adapt to changing perceptions about shopping convenience and quality of life among consumers? And finally, as more consumers who have increasingly busy lives want to enjoy what little time they have in healthy, spiritually up-lifting places, where will they go? It is a dilemma that can be resolved through an understanding of evolving distinctions between warehouse, amenity, and discretionary shopping habits.

Before we try to offer a solution, it is appropriate to first define big-box retail within the context of community building. In form, “big box” refers to a warehouse building, simple and rectangular in construction, quite often of corrugated metal, concrete block and/or brick-faced walls. For the most part, there is very little spirit to the architectural design, except in promoting the store’s brand name and logo to potential customers. Big box is also characterized in site design by a stand-alone building within a sea of parking, large storm water drainage ponds, tall light standards and high-intensity lighting.

In function, big box refers to inexpensive goods bought and sold in volume. Its business is dependant upon large quantities of goods being purchased for the least cost of delivery. In many ways, big-box retail environments shelter marketplace activities of daily life, much as the open-air plazas of Europe or the main streets of pre-World War II America, except they are now under one roof and one owner. The big-box store has a captive audience, and no matter which brand you buy, the big-box retailer harvests the sale.

In the end, big box is not designed to create mutually-beneficial partnerships between retailers and community citizens, much in the way traditional town and centers once did, but between local customers and corporate sellers. It is my hope that shifts in consumer preference will cause these retailers to address commonly held design values much differently than they have become accustomed to, if for no other reason than to compete for consumer dollars. The definition of convenience is about to change. Conventional methods of providing goods in large store footprints, with large surface parking lots, and in locations increasingly farther away from the people who use them, will be increasingly inconvenient to the customer, in terms of time and personal automobile travel.

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