Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Canadian-American architect Witold Rybczynski, has this interesting slide show at Slate titled Ordinary Places. He subtitles it “rediscovering the parking lot, the big-box store, the farmers market, the gas Station” and observes:
At first glance, the big-box store doesn’t foster sociability. The no-frills environment sends the message that “we are doing everything possible to keep our prices down,” and the assembly-line atmosphere encourages speed and efficiency.
Everyone is absorbed in the serious business of finding what they’re looking for, a task the long, identical aisles don’t make easy. This is the exact opposite of shopping-as-entertainment that characterizes most malls.
He’s not the only one to characterise big-box retailing this way, but why on earth would it really matter if a big-box store does or “doesn’t foster sociability”?
As it happens, my wife and I bought eight new dining chairs on the weekend from a big-box store. We parked in a large, central parking lot surrounded on three sides by furniture and electrical stores and on the fourth by an arterial road.
We didn’t go there to socialise – we went there to buy some utilitarian items. I don’t actually go to big-box stores for sociability any more than I go jogging to meet people. Some activities are best done alone or with intimates. When I’m in the mood for sociability, I might go to a party, to dinner, to the football, to a market, walk the neighbourhood, pick up my daughter from school or go to any of the thousands of opportunities for meeting and seeing people offered by a big city like Melbourne.
But I do want to improve my social welfare! So being able to drive to a store and park directly in front saves me valuable time. I can immediately bring the items home in the back of the car, thus saving on delivery cost and getting a welfare-enhancing charge of instant gratification! But most of all, big-box stores give me choice and lower prices. As Cameron says in the second season of Modern Family “I’m sort of like Costco. I’m big, I’m not fancy, and I dare you not to like me”.
I’d be pretty confident that people on an average income, or less, would appreciate the lower prices and convenience of a big-box store much more than they’d feel one lost opportunity for sociability out of many. They’d probably think someone who tells them big-box makes them worse off is a patronising wanker. The savings in time and money afforded by big-box mean they’ve actually got more resources to socialise in a meaningful way at a time and place of their own choosing.
The benefits for customers of big-box retailing are significant. The Financial Review reported on Saturday:
In the DFO Homebush, an old industrial building opposite Sydney’s Olympic precinct, the retailer sold $200 million worth of stock last year. That equates to $11,400 for every square metre of shop – a figure equivalent to that of Chadstone in Melbourne. Yet occupancy costs paid by tenants in the DFOs of about 8% are much lower than the costs of around 15% in traditional centres
In fairness, I should add that Professor Rybczynski doesn’t in any event think big-box is completely devoid of social opportunities. He goes on to say:
Yet utilitarian big boxes can be important information exchanges. Do-it-yourself centers, especially on weekends, are where homeowners find out about lawn care and paint sealers or how to repair leaky faucets. In the far-flung suburbs, big boxes also serve as community meeting places. In this Nevada Home Depot, for example, a FEMA worker hands out forms to people affected by local flooding.
I know what he means. Lots of schools and community groups raise money by running sausage sizzles outside big-box retailers like Bunnings. The standard of urban design around any Bunnings may be appalling (in my opinion – that’s a very subjective matter), but there’s surely no doubting that people like them.
Melbourne has already well and truly caught the big-box disease (DFO was started by Melburnians). I acknowledge that it has real downsides. It is a product of car dependency and hence is implicated in the costs imposed on society by oil depletion, pollution, emissions, noise and accidents. Most of them are ugly. However the focus of policy should be on addressing these substantive issues rather than on imagining problems.