The Future of Retailing

American retail development in the 21st century is pulling in opposing directions.

The suburban shopping malls that stripped away much of the life from our center cities since the 1970’s, have barely been keeping up with inflation. Many shopping centers have gone bankrupt and stand empty.

Today, there is a resurgence in center city living. The increasing prevalence of catalog and internet sales have cost malls billions of dollars in market share. As internet shopping becomes increasingly cheaper, easier, and more sophisticated, this trend is escalating.

Publicly funded space around Baltimore’s Harborplace Festival Market

Similarly the upscale, “specialty retail Festival Markets” (see “Public Markets and other retail forms” section on this website) that were going to ‘save’ America’s center cities in the 1980’s, have for the most part, gone bankrupt. Today, they have mostly passed from the urban landscape.

Those that have continued to survive such as “Harborplace” in Baltimore, have relied heavily on the contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in surrounding publicly funded infrastructure – Aquarium, Harborwalk, etc.

See the enclosed “link” to the 1991 article “After the Festival is Over” in Governing magazine for the story of the demise of Festival Markets.

In the twenty first century, retail development is heading down contradictory paths.

On the one hand, “big box” stores such as Sam’s Club, Target, Home Depot, Costco, Best Buy, etc., have changed the retail landscape of America. Shoppers stomach or ignore their vapid, warehouse atmosphere to enjoy the benefits of cheaper prices, better selection, and the convenience of ‘one stop’ shopping.

Stores like Wal-Mart will never be the place to go to ‘meet a friend’ or to smell the aroma of fresh baked bread – despite their broad selection and discount pricing.

On the other hand, flavorful, locally owned and operated shops featuring regional products and a service oriented ‘home grown’ atmosphere have been burgeoning across America. In the food industry, what’s ‘hot’ is “fresh”, “local”, and often, “organic”.

These are exactly the kinds of businesses that populate successful Public Markets.

To understand the success of Public Markets, one needs to look at the changes in the social and economic complexion of our country.

As women become more equal members of the workforce, and as all workers tend to have less disposable time, the ‘social’ aspect of Public Markets becomes more and more critical to their success.

Because of the ‘social’, experiential, and ‘entertainment’ value of Public Markets, they have helped create entrepreneurial opportunities and jobs for thousands of citizens who are often marginalized by the “mainstream” economy. In doing so, they have helped bring life back to our cities.

Understanding the social importance of Public Markets and building this reality into their design and product mix is critical to their success.

In the 21st century, center-city poverty continues to be an unfortunate reality. Public Markets have a proven track record in helping to positively address these conditions. They are uniquely positioned to take advantage of national retailing trends to realize a broad array of public goals and to create a more vital future for us all.