The enduring appeal of retail: why physical stores will never go out of style


by Anh H. Nguyen


I will just come out and say it: the so-called Retail Apocalypse is nonsense, nothing but a drummed up scare tactic. Proof? The Covid-19 pandemic, or more accurately, the lockdowns and other restrictions have ironically showed that we as a society, as a species, wants, needs, craves retail. Online shopping simply does not suffice; it is but a pale substitute for the real thing. Shopping in person is a need as old as civilization itself, and online shopping is never going to replace it.


You don't believe me? 2000 years ago, the Romans built Trajan's Market, widely considered to be the oldest shopping center in history. It had 6 levels and over 150 shops, on par with most modern counterparts. The 600-year-old Grand Bazaar in Istanbul has 4000 shops spanned over 58 streets and still serves both tourists and locals alike to the tune of 400,000 visitors daily. Name a metropolitan city and chances are at least one of its historical shopping centers is a renowned attraction: the Moscow's GUM, the Oxford Covered Market, the Boston's Quincy Market, the Kyoto's Nishiki Market, the Milan's Galleria, all of which are still standing tall and proud, bustling with life and activities. Why aren't they surrendering to e-commerce yet?


The answer is simple: While online shopping does a spectacular job of getting us the physical things we need, it could never give us the intangible things we want.


Still not convinced? Think about the wet markets stationed in every neighborhood of Southeast Asia, the 9000 farmers' markets in the US, the glittery Christmas markets springing up across Europe each winter, the floating markets in the Mekong Delta, and the dazzling array of night markets all over the world. Think about areas and towns entirely devoted to shopping: the swanky Bond Street and 5th Avenue, the magical Jiufen Old Street, the vibrant Chatuchak and Pratunam, the hip Ginza, the larger-than-life Marina Bay Sands, the pragmatic American outlet malls. What online marketplaces could rival such a kaleidoscope of culture, art, and festivities? What perks could online shopping possibly offer to make up for the lack of colors, tastes, smells, sounds, and sensations?


Jiufen, one of the most popular tourist spot in Taiwan, coming to life when night falls.


To chalk it all up to consumerism would be a mistake. We all trade our hard-earned money for goods, but more often than not, we merely need the goods while we like, love, miss the experience. The experience of seeing, touching, tasting, trying on the products. Of interacting, mingling, watching people, showing off, coming and going. Of indulging and belonging, taking in the environment, enjoying a moment in time. Of feeling alive. Those are basic instincts present even in less evolved species. In humans, those are the drives behind the rise of empires and economic powerhouses. What kind of societies would we have now if our ancestors all stayed inside their caves and ordered stuff off a stone tablet? What kind of cultural exchanges would such societies foster? I have no doubt that without our beloved, sometimes noisy, oftentimes messy marketplaces, our languages would be poorer, our attires duller, our lives less worth living.


The last four months has been the weirdest time in my life. Due to some severe outbreaks in our city, our freedom of movement got increasingly restricted until we were all ordered to stay inside indefinitely. Our whole world shrank and shrank until it became no larger than the confines of our homes. In many regards, I had it better than many less fortunate souls: I could still order most of the things I needed off the Internet, although it called for some extra resourcefulness (i.e: planning, waiting, and in some cases, repeatedly pleading). I had a lot of free time to read the whole Harlan Coben bibliography and rewatch some yesteryear TV shows. I even managed to get some work done. But I grew more and more despondent each day, and many people I knew reported feeling the same way. We tried to console ourselves by counting our blessings, but to a large extent it was in vain.


The lakeside area near my home, the beating heart of the city's Southern part, was an urban center crossed with a bucolic oasis. Before Covid-19, it was teeming with life day and night. The lockdown turned it into a deserted, dark, and depressing landscape, very much like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic novel. Hungry stray cats and dogs, their bones almost poking through the papery skins, patrolled the area in packs looking for scraps, but even the garbage bins were empty.


Desolation: Melbourne, one of the world's most livable cities, also endured the world's longest lockdown.


At the beginning of October, things started to change. Strict lockdown measures were gradually relaxed and then entirely lifted. The big shopping mall next to the lake lit up like a beacon and people started gathering, strolling, exercising, having dinner and chatting, big goofy smiles plastered on our faces. We were deliriously happy just to walk around. Cars and motorbikes lined up the lake bank, and even the (very occasionally seen) stray animals looked much plumper. The first time I went shopping post-lockdown was a beatific experience. Mundane acts like walking around a store, perusing the shelves, even waiting in a checkout line, were elevated simply because of how aware I was. I told myself, "this is what normal feels like".


Am I suggesting that opening malls will solve all our mental health problems? Of course not. But it certainly plays a big, indispensable part in how we cope. Getting everything delivered to us, like necessities, foods, and drinks, is convenient most of the time. But if it is all we have, it becomes imprisonment. Covid-19 showed us that a world where people stay in solitary units and shop solely online is neither tranquil nor realistic, it is dystopian and suffocating. That is why revenge buying, i.e. people compensate for the anxiety, hurt, and pent-up demand by spending money, crops up all over the place whenever and wherever lockdown ends, from China to the US. It is retail therapy raised to the tenth power due to extenuating circumstances. It is not a phenomenon governed by logic. It is dictated by optimism, fear of missing out, and most importantly, a plain, incurable love for shopping.


Making up for lost time: the first day Hanoi's shopping malls opened after the 2021 summer lockdown.


What does it mean for retailers? I believe that retailers should not fear e-commerce, because there is no need to do so. Traditional retail is just so intoxicating and deeply-rooted in people's psyche that we will never abandon it in favor of online shopping. What they should actually do is analyze what e-commerce actually does better, namely data-driven business making, and try to emulate that. If physical retailers could combine their intrinsic magnetism with the power of data-backed insights, they will be invincible.


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