I recently bought a new mattress. What could this possibly have to do with architecture, urban form, economics, or society? Humor me for a minute.
In years past I would have dreaded the transaction. Driving out along an eight lane arterial to a series of chain mattress stores or going to a department store in a mall is my idea of Hell. I have no desire to lie on various sample beds trying to guess which one is the better value relative to quality while sales staff give their convoluted pitches. A little movie screen inside my head plays scenes from a David Mamet play. I’d rather chew on broken glass.
So I got on the computer and did a quick Google search for mattress reviews and stumbled on a seriously geeky young guy at Sleepopolis who was genuinely helpful. I watched a few of his videos describing the relative merits of various brands like Casper, Bear, Eve, and Saatva, and ultimately chose Leesa. I made my electronic purchase from my kitchen and a few days later the mattress arrived at my door in a ridiculously small box. It came out of the package and unfurled like those pneumatic biscuits you buy in a tube at the supermarket. Happy! It’s a quality mattress at a reasonable price point with a drama free transaction. What’s not to love?
Next I got on to Craigslist and half an hour later I was loading pieces of a very well priced second hand bed frame into the car. Fast. Convenient. Economical. So, what does any of this have to do with urbanism?
We know what happened to mom and pop book shops when Borders and Barnes & Nobel gobbled up their market share with big box economies of scale. And we know what happened to the big box book stores when online book sales took off on Amazon. The same process is now unfolding with mattresses. It’s actually happening with more and more retail sales of every kind. If people are able to purchase products directly from manufacturers without ever stepping foot in a physical store you have to ask… what’s going to happen to the millions of retail buildings that litter the North American landscape?
Here’s an old video rental store. Remember them? How long do you think this place has already been vacant? If the local authorities are waiting for a new retail establishment to move in they’re not paying attention to external reality. (Hint. They’re not paying attention to external reality.)
How about all those drive thru banks that exist along every suburban commercial corridor? Paper transactions are becoming an endangered species as digital flows displace cash and checks. Ever heard of PayPal? Venmo? Google Wallet? Online mortgage brokers? Ask anyone under the age of thirty the last time they stepped foot in a physical bank for anything. There are drawbacks and trade offs associated with these kinds of financial tectonic shifts, but for better or worse that’s where things are heading.
Even without the shift to virtual consumerism we’ve already massively overbuilt the retail environment for all sorts of reasons. Municipalities have been competing for sales tax receipts and jobs for decades. New growth has been subsidized at all costs without understanding what happens to all the older stuff that gets left behind. Pension funds and corporate chains build more of what worked in the past without understanding the fundamentals have changed radically. We now have a massive permanent oversupply of buildings that will never be used for their intended purposes as carpet emporiums, discount tire boutiques, and beverage supply depots.
Where there’s abundant supply there’s at least an attempt to find a market demand. Strip mall elder care is paid warehousing for humans. Think of it as convenient mini self storage for mom and dad. Hey, Boomers. I’m talking to you. Sit your ass down and eat your pudding. Your kids aren’t coming back to pick you up for another two hours. Don’t give me any lip or I’m turning off Jeopardy. This is Gen X getting back at you for sending us to that torture chamber called consolidated regional high school.