What is the future of main street small businesses in this brave new world of e-commerce?
The other day I was driving with Chris through an unfamiliar part of town and I commented on an artisan lighting shop that caught my eye. While I was saying aloud I’d like to go there someday, I knew I never would. Judging from the window, their prices were probably too high and it’d be anticlimactic to walk in knowing I’d just walk right on out empty handed. Anyway, I thought to myself, I could probably find lighting just as unique from the comfort of my laptop and for cheaper.
There are very few reasons that compel me into a brick and mortar small business anymore. Online shopping is just so much more convenient, the choices are so much richer, and I feel like I have more control throughout the shopping process. The reasons to shop B&M are dwindling. I like shopping locally, but there are services such as Etsy that help me support entrepreneurs and artists without dealing with the roads or other hassles. With clothes, I do still like to try before I buy, but I imagine I’ll probably adjust my barometer eventually. Used bookstores will forever hold a nostalgia in my heart and a small space in my wallet, but Amazon’s selection and the Kindle’s convenience make the used bookstore a treasure rather than a resource. Overall, it is increasingly rare for me to go into a B&M store for anything but essentials.
There is one B&M small business model, however, that is positively thriving in US culture: food joints. Restaurants of all levels of quality and seriousness, cafes, delis, breakfast spots, fast food chains, convenience stores, drive through burrito joints…food businesses are everywhere and we want more. Rather than bringing modern consumerism into the home, the thriving of restaurants draws us out of our kitchens and into the caloric comforts of someone else’s responsibility. Restaurants are convenient and we’re increasingly making room for them in our budgets.
What will main street look like in the future, I wonder. Is it possible that non-food small businesses will only very rarely have store fronts? Will walking down main street mostly entail choosing which place to grab food? I can see a future in which 90+% of B&M small businesses are food joints. Where you never have to walk more than a block or even a building to choose a new food place. I can imagine tomorrow’s generations will never physically touch products before buying them, will never meet the owner of a favorite shop, will never wait in holiday shopping traffic. But I can imagine a next generation who is more savvy with price comparison, who is more knowledgeable about each product purchased, and who values moments of genuine human interaction in the virtual marketplace.
I suppose if I’m right, there’s a certain sadness for traditions left behind. But what the Internet offers entrepreneurs, through services such as Etsy or Kickstarter, creates a whole new level of possibility. Perhaps the future is quite bright for small businesses. Who knows. Whatever the case, main street is definitely getting a renovation.
Photo “Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic