Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Inside the Box

By Ellen Cutter, Director of Research.

My co-worker, Evan Robertson, blogged recently about the food truck movement and its ability to instantly, albeit temporarily, bring economic activity and life to otherwise underused urban areas. Last week, I read about a similar concept being tested in the retail industry. Unlike the delicious food truck movement, it seems pretty unsatisfying. 

Inc Magazine asks the question “Is This the Future of Retail” of SHOPBOX, a temporary shopping exhibit of sorts currently located in Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market. SHOPBOX is a sealed steel shipping container with glass windows which rotates an array of American-made hipster knickknacks, bags and hats, and home goods --similar to a sandwich vending machine, except that goods are ordered via text message. And, just like buying egg salad from a machine, I am dubious. 

I will admit, in Brooklyn where space is a premium and rents are high, this concept is interesting. SHOPBOX is relatively portable and small, giving its retailers high flexibility and low overhead. One issue, which I can’t wrap my head around, is why customers would make a trip to SHOPBOX to stare at a product they could just as easily stare at online. Most people make the trip to the store because they want cash and carry service, or at least to hold, manipulate, or try on the good they are shopping for before they buy it online. So the answer here, I think, is that SHOPBOX must be positioned in places which are walkable and allow the broad consumer spontaneity of window shopping. In this regard, SHOPBOX seems like a novelty that probably would not find much success outside of a few dozen hyper-urban neighborhoods across the country. And, that is fine. 

But, I have to admit that I find a few things about the SHOPBOX concept very sad. (1) There is no human interaction. (2) It doesn’t bring jobs to the neighborhoods it serves. (3) It’s trying to make parking lots “significant.” Bottom line: you can put something there temporarily, but parking lots are not what bring people together. SHOPBOX is an interesting as a business concept, but as a community builder, this is a miss in my book.