The holiday season is a time of sparkle and spirit, a time when cities vibrate with light and color. It also is a time for serious shopping along festive streets and, if you can find a parking space, in stores brimming with goods.
But is this annual tradition in danger of disappearing because of e-commerce and the Internet? Are retail stores and shopping centers likely to become the real estate dinosaurs of the 21st century?
I thought about this last week as I sat in front of my computer, engaged in online browsing that allowed me to find, view, select, buy and send holiday gifts. No traffic to contend with, no parking spaces to fight for, no half-hour waits for a salesperson or postal clerk--and discount prices to boot. I was not spending money in local stores, which made me wonder whether they will survive.
Yet predicting the future of retail is no sure thing. People don't go shopping just to satisfy a need to check items off a list. They go because shopping is a stimulating social experience, one that is celebratory as well as hectic.
Many people enjoy the hustle and bustle of the crowd. They want to see what other people are looking at, buying or not buying, wearing or not wearing. They are elated by eye-catching Christmas decorations, the intense reds and greens, the glittering gold and silver. And, of course, there's all that tempting merchandise.
Holiday shopping is especially exciting for children. Some of my earliest and most durable childhood memories are of gazing in awe at department store display windows with artificial snow, miniature reindeer and Santa Claus mannequins; experiencing the intimidating interview on the knee of the real Santa Claus; and, above all, looking up at the seemingly endless supply of toys towering overhead, aisle after aisle.
Shopping online is incredibly convenient, but when I used it last week, part of me missed the traditional retail experience. No amount of sophisticated electronics can allow me to hold a product in my hand, feel its weight and texture or appreciate its detail and craftsmanship. The coolest graphics on a computer monitor will never match the experience of city streets and glowing store windows.
The Internet will continue to alter dramatically how we conduct business. It will change modes of retailing and give consumers entirely new ways to identify and purchase products at competitive prices. Storefront retailers will be forced to compete for and attract customers differently, and the architecture of retail real estate surely will evolve into something else.
But will the Internet prove to be the Grinch that steals Christmas and much that goes with it? As long as humans continue to be social animals, I don't think so.
Roger Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.