Online shopping might reshape cities

We’ve covered this topic before, but how online shopping might reshape cities is definitely worth revisiting both for the phenomenon itself, and as an example of “software eating the world.” Digital companies, or simply the use of new technologies by incumbents, not only disrupt their competitors but often have much broader impacts.

Dark stores are located in retail storefronts on main streets, near the heart of busy neighborhoods, but they serve only ecommerce customers. And they’ve gone from a niche phenomenon discussed largely in retail industry circles to a feature of major American cities.

In this case, not only are startups gobbling up retail space to serve their customers, but some existing retail spaces are also closing off their storefronts and concentrating on delivery.

The fear is that dark stores, like vacant storefronts, could puncture a hole in the social landscape of a neighborhood. Vacant storefronts are bad for cities. When there are a lot of them in a tight vicinity, they mean that fewer people will walk down the street, and fewer connections between neighbors will happen.

As with many second-order consequences of technological disruption, the most impact is often not on the lifestyle of the users but to the lives of the less fortunate.

Replacing a public-facing grocery store, especially in lower-income areas, with a delivery-only one could exacerbate problems of food access, added Bitterman. People who pay for groceries with food stamps are often unable to order groceries online, not to mention that they might not have access to a smartphone or can’t afford the delivery fee.

The phenomenon is still quite new, emerging in only few cities, and not at a worrying level just yet… as long as you don’t look ahead, especially if small-scale experiments start multiplying or if large-scale spaces start appearing.

That starts to shift, however, when you see multiple dark stores in close proximity, or when you see larger retailers switching their storefronts to dark stores. When a bigger retailer steps into the space, “maybe what you’ll find is an entire or even half of a block face that’s all of a sudden just dark and gone,” she said. “That’s not missing teeth. That’s something more profound.”

The article linked above does a good job of balancing the risks with the current state of affairs, yet it’s also important to look at this as digital (and the companies’ attitudes) blanketing cities and changing how they work in the world of atoms. If all commerce, or even just a more significant percentage of it, goes to “the cloud,” then that has real impacts on the livelihood of a lot of people, on the social fabric of neighbourhoods, and on equal access to services.

Those challenges won’t completely go away, which emphasizes the importance of creating and promoting projects that use those same technologies while centring citizens, and of putting reasonable guide rails up with the preservation of the richness of communities at the heart of decisions.

Photo-illustration: Sam Whitney; Getty images