Online shopping can't compete on 'place'

What if it turns out that bad zoning is one of the big threats to small retailers?

Recent media reports have lamented the surge in online shopping and the negative impact this is having on small local retailers. This follows years of similar stories about the threat that suburban big box stores pose to local shops.

Naturally, the debate about what to do to protect small retailers continues to focus on price competitiveness and product differentiation. But what if part of the solution lies beyond the retailers themselves? What if the design of our streets, villages and urban centres is partly to blame? What if it turns out that zoning is also a real threat?

Before zoning enthusiasts became obsessed with planning around the efficient movement of cars, our villages and downtown cores all had this thing called 'Main Street'. This was a place where people gathered, socialized, kept their finger on the pulse on their community, worked, and... shopped.

The zoning imposed segregation of our cities and towns - and the consequent segmentation of our connections with our community - has meant that we work in one corner of town, play in another, and shop in yet another. Central gathering places - places where our professional, recreational and social lives can collide - have been all but banned. This has produced many unintended consequences: not the least of which has been relegating retailers to the outer fringes of our communities.

If we don't have a community or social connection to our retailers, should it come as any surprise that we start looking for bargains online? If the only interface between us and the purveyor of our goods is a characterless suburban outlet in a sea of asphalt, is it really a big stretch to think that an increasing number of us might take to looking for internet-based bargains?

Without the social interaction, proximity to home, and the broad availability of a mix of goods, services, and entertainment that our main street used to provide, what do we have? A pretty big incentive to shop online. That's bad news for all local retail and it's bad news for anyone who thinks that community is important.

Local retailers will never be able to compete with online outlets on price. They likely can't compete on variety either. But they can compete on 'place'. Build an attractive, vibrant, multi-functional, pedestrian friendly main street and you're building a place where business can thrive and a community can prosper economically and socially.

Sean McAdam