Skip to main content

Why Amazon Can't Be a Third Space ... Yet


By Lee Peterson

When was the last time you heard someone say, without a trace of irony, that a big-box store helped them get through the day?

Twenty-five years ago, Ray Oldenburg published “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day.” Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, explained how certain stores were more than just places to shop. They were spaces for “regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” He called these locales a “third space,” and his book explored the important emotional role they played in people’s lives.

Less than a generation ago, retail environments were legitimately third spaces. Today, most stores are viewed as time-sucking establishments with unfriendly associates, vast expanses of space that rather than help you “get through the day,” require ample reserves of patience to merely get through. They are places to be avoided, and rarely “happily anticipated,” as Oldenburg put it.

Give or take some retail standouts bucking these dismal trends, this is the retail vacuum Amazon plans to enter with its official and, of course, ironic — opening of pop-up stores this holiday season. At these hybrid stores in San Francisco and Sacramento, shoppers will be able to test out, and presumably buy Amazon e-readers, tablets, smartphones and streaming media players. This raises some important, competitive questions for stores: Can an Amazon store evolve into a third space? If not, is this the opening retailers have been looking for to finally neutralize the Amazon threat?

Oldenburg described third spaces as welcoming and comfortable, mostly free or inexpensive, and within walking distance; places with food and drink where regulars connected with new and old friends. Sadly, few stores today could boast of playing such a meaningful, emotional role in the lives of shoppers.

Granted, Amazon — just now entering the brick-and-mortar space — has a long way to go before it can ever embody or pretend to function as a “third space” for shoppers. The announced plans for pop-up stores will merely be slightly dressed-up and glamorized fulfillment centers, not the kind of place regulars will go to connect with new and old friends.

I had revisited Oldenburg’s book recently in my search for some answers to a rather disheartening finding at the heart of a recent survey we did of 1,500 consumers nationwide. Our findings suggested, rather definitively, a dismal reality facing the retail industry: People don’t want to go into stores. More specifically, young people (a.k.a millenials) prefer — by double-digit margins compared with baby boomers — any technology that helps them avoid going inside a store at all. They don’t love shopping anymore. It’s a chore, not an experience.

It’s why the moniker “millennial” no longer applies. This is the “storeless” generation, a generation raised in chain-store America, one without welcoming third spaces, at least in the classic Oldenburg sense. Moreover, the way young people get “through the day” has also radically changed. Based on frequency, social media plays a bigger role in their lives than stores. It is where they gather and connect with old friends and new.

Yet based on well-being, social media fails to play the satisfying role in the lives of young people third spaces once played. Social media may be something they do all day long, but it doesn’t help them get through the day. In fact, obsessive use of social media has created a latent craving for more meaningful social interactions in the real world, and this represents an opportunity for retailers.

Not only that, social media, a growing body of research suggests, is contributing to a new wave of mental health problems, and may, in fact, be making users miserable. “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it,” one researcher wrote in a recent study of Facebook use.

Another study, a survey of 515 college-aged Facebook users with high social media use, found that “users displace real world social ties to online ones,” a process that ends up suppressing empathic social skills and life satisfaction. In other words, this storeless generation, which came of age at a time of dwindling physical third places, and burgeoning virtual third spaces, finds both spaces ultimately unsatisfying.

It seems counterintuitive, but excessive social media — rather than threatening the business model of retailers — might present the greatest opportunity in generations for stores. Retail brands attuned and strategically focused on meeting these emotional needs have an opportunity to win back this storeless generation.

High-quality public spaces and shops are the two most beneficial types of places for creating a sense of community, well-being, security and civic responsibility, according to a recent survey by a team of environmental psychologists. Young people might not want to go inside a store if it is an errand, but perhaps more than any other generation, they still crave third places for social interaction. The problem is most stores aren’t delivering on this age-old promise and role of retail. It is doubtful Amazon will shift this reality by opening a few pop-up stores.

Stores have always been a vital part of human well-being and community belonging, but retail has lost its way. It’s time for stores to find a way to make shopping easier — cut out the confusing store layout, untrained associates, long check-out lines — and create new spaces where experiences and social interactions can happen. It’s time to reinvent and revive Oldenburg’s original concept of “third space.”

But can big-box stores truly be a third space in the classic Oldenburg sense? Only if they reexamine what role they play in the lives of consumers: Are you merely a fulfillment center, or do you have enough permission from consumers to turn your store into a third space? If the answer is the latter, the pleasure of shopping and the social interaction young people crave can take center stage again. It’s not too late, and despite Amazon’s growing power and influence, retailers are far better positioned when it comes to creating third spaces again.

As Oldenburg, in a 2011 interview, said: “I think the typical American consumer is always looking for a friendly place. You know, we’re deprived.”

Lee Peterson is executive VP brand, strategy and design, WD Partners, a global retail design firm.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds