It appears that the biggest weapon in the fight against urban sprawl and homogenization of retail in America might be online shopping.
The huge selection that you could find at a place like Wal-Mart isn’t much of a novelty anymore. The appeal of having that much stuff to choose from just isn’t there now, thanks to retailers like Amazon.com. There, you have a huge selection available to shop at your convenience, and a lot of the merchandise can be shipped to you in two days.
Anything else that you may need quicker is usually available at those pharmacy-convenience stores, dollar stores, or other smaller retail stores.
In 2015, Amazon.com passed Wal-Mart as the biggest retailer in America. Wal-Mart had the largest advantage of the big-box chains with their immense network of warehouses and an efficient supply chain that allowed them to price things lower than most stores. They’ve now lost that advantage.
My guess is that online retailers will continue gaining market share, big-box retailers will continue to shift more of their focus to online sales, and shippers will continue to grow and increase their efficiency.
I think you can compare it to the newspaper industry. They lost subscribers (and advertising dollars as a result), then cut staff and shrank their papers until they offered such a poor product that even more people cancelled their subscriptions. I see that happening now in the big-box stores—they’re shifting more toward online sales, keeping less inventory in the stores, which then drives more people to shop online.
I’m optimistic—I see more low impact, high density development being constructed and people appreciating these walkable communities. I see revitalized “Main Streets” because online retailers are creating a new niche for small businesses. Big companies like Amazon are providing a platform for small businesses to sell their goods online. Less dependence on big-box stores creates a niche market for goods that aren’t easy to ship or are needed immediately. These are things that could be priced higher—away from the competition of online retail—thus allowing enough profit for smaller businesses to survive on.
Maybe someday we’ll wax nostalgic to our grandkids about those huge stores that sold everything—“Kid, you could get your oil changed, your eyes checked, do your grocery shopping and buy some new shoes, all in the same store.” We could tell stories about trying to find our car in the vast wasteland of paved parking lot. I know I wouldn’t mind sharing some stories about the long-gone “big-box” stores.
If you’re interested—here’s a good article about how the big-boxes could adapt into smaller stores: