January 4, 2010

Future generations won't feel nostalgia for places?

That's what Dan Gilbert predicts. The basic argument is that as stores become more uniform across the country or world, replacing the locally distinct stores of yesteryear, you won't feel any longing to revisit the place where you grew up because those same stores will be available wherever you end up.

In this post I'll go through some basic points where I think Gilbert's premises of what the future will be like are wrong. In a follow-up post I'll grant Gilbert's vision of the future and show that even then we only have to worry about losing nostalgia for places whose experiences are dominated by using consumable goods.

First, it's not true that every Starbucks is the same -- indeed, each one looks pretty different from the others, aside from the color scheme. The building space is different, and so is the selection and arrangement of furniture, the views of outside, the baristas (and how well you know them), and your fellow customers. When I was in Maryland over the summer and for Thanksgiving, I went to two different Starbucks (within about three minutes' drive of each other), and they were totally different from each other -- and more importantly, from the one I go to every day where I am now. Being away from my "home" Starbucks really did make me want to return. *

This isn't quite as true for other stores that Gilbert mentions, such as McDonalds, but even there no two are alike. And as we get wealthier and become less sensitive to price and convenience, we'll want more variety between McDonalds. The really important parts may be the same across all McDonalds, but that still leaves plenty of wiggle room for variety -- choice of furniture, what the seating arrangement is like, whether there's a play room and if so what it's like, what the view to the outside world is like, who tends to work the cashiers, what clientele it attracts, and so on.

Even in the touristy area of Barcelona called Las Ramblas, whose big-name stores you think would try to appeal to tourists' and locals' taste for uniformity and predictability, there are two McDonalds separated by roughly 15 minutes' walking. Still, aside from the consumable goods sold, they are quite different. One has almost no outside view, while the other is on a corner with large windows. One has standard McDonalds furniture, while the other's is in the mid-century modern style. That must obviously reflect the different groups of people who go to each one. There's a third McDonalds about three minutes' walking from the first one, and it too is totally different: it is more vertically stacked and offers a view of the bustling crowd below in the Portal de l'Angel. I would still love to return to the Burger King next to Pla├ža Catalunya.

Because consumers really do value variety, dominant sellers will move more in that direction over time. Even stores where you don't expect to sit down and linger, such as grocery stores, are becoming more distinct. Again, this is probably a wealth effect -- the chain's stores have already done well enough on price and convenience that they now have to distinguish themselves by the variety they offer, not only of consumable goods but of the design of the store itself.

It's more visible within a chain like Whole Foods, whose customers are wealthier -- the two near me are as similar as grocery stores need to be, but otherwise they do feel like two different grocery stores. But even the Safeways are headed there, just as they are in other aspects of wealth-driven variety. I remember as a kid that they had no imported cheeses, and you were lucky to find fresh mozzarella or feta; otherwise it was mostly American, Swiss, and Cheddar slices. Over Thanksgiving I went to the Safeway I went to as a kid, for the first time in years, and that had all changed.

So, even if one chain dominated all of the coffee store market or all of the grocery store market, in the future each store would have its own character. And those that cater to wealthier customers are not very far from that even today. For these reasons, I think Gilbert's projection of what the future will look like is off, and that we shouldn't worry about a world that will never come to be.

We might also ask what's so special about places where producers sell us their goods and services? Do we not also feel nostalgia for other types of places? Surely we do, and those aren't under the threat of uniformity due to large chains commanding more of the market. Houses are not going to look the same, nor are school buildings, libraries, parks, or churches. Nor will the natural environment, such as the hill where you used to go sledding as a kid, the creek that wound behind your school, or the woods and caves you explored on camping trips. None of those will be reproduced in another location, and thus nostalgia will make you want to return to those original spots.

Indeed, we have stronger nostalgic feelings for these non-commercial and therefore more sacred-feeling places, so that you could argue that even if Gilbert were right, we wouldn't notice it much. Sure, the small part of our nostalgia that would've been spurred by thoughts about where we used to buy coffee or hamburgers or jeans might not be there, but that loss is nearly invisible compared to the nostalgia we feel for homes, school buildings, and libraries, or for hills, creeks, and woods.

In the next post, I'll consider a future where every version of some type looks the same and offers the same products and services, which is the portentous trend Gilbert sees. Even there, we will only lose our nostalgia for the original we grew up with if the experiences we have in the place are dominated by using consumable goods.

* That's why there's nothing at all silly about the sustainability of there being two Starbucks right across the street from each other -- the consumables being sold are the same, but none of the other stuff is. One has cute 20 year-old baristas, the other a bunch of disaffected indie rock males in their 30s. One has the furniture more spread out, the other has it placed in a cozier concentration. One has windows that open out on a certain view of the surroundings, the other offers different views. One has no bathrooms or unappealing bathrooms, the other has nice ones. One draws a certain clientele, the other draws a different clientele, each group perhaps converging on their home turf in the same arbitrary way that drivers pick the left or right side of the road to drive on.

In fact, even if both stores were identical in all other respects, the preference of people to self-segregate to some degree would alone make two side-by-side Starbucks sustainable. The two groups might have identical preferences regarding coffee and coffeehouses, including choice of location, but they wouldn't want to mingle with the other group. So, just make two exact copies right next to each other and let them sort themselves into separate buildings. That's more or less what a restaurant did when it offered smoking and non-smoking sections.


  1. "...if the experiences we have in the place are dominated by using consumable goods."

    That sounds like such a dreary basis for experience. While many of my memories are of places, there are very few associated with brand names.

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