Eating out is buying stuff along with a positive experience -- while saving time on chores such as grocery shopping and doing dishes.These days, it's emergent, with the likes of General Growth taking care of the logistics. But that's what Marshall Field or Gimbel used to do.
Contrary to what you might suppose, shopping-center vacancy rates have been steadily falling since 2008, thanks in large part to food. Restaurant expansions account for increasing amounts of space, and malls have begun turning to food halls as anchor tenants. These are large spaces where customers can eat varied, high-quality meals or take-home grocery items such as artisanal bread, fresh produce, or gourmet meats and cheeses.
Department stores weren’t always dull places to buy things less efficiently than you can online. In the early days, their wonders included elegant tearooms, suitable for ladies who’d never frequent saloons. Stores held concerts and fashion shows. They provided playgrounds and nurseries. They gave all sorts of lessons, from bicycle riding in the 1890s to bridge and mah-jongg decades later. They displayed original artworks. In many and varied ways, they wrapped their goods, many of them themselves new and exotic, in experiences. “One came now less to purchase a particular article than simply to visit, buying in the process because it was part of the excitement, part of an experience that added another dimension to life,” writes the historian Michael B. Miller in Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869–1920.Some of that was still in place in the last days of The America That Worked(TM), it being a family ritual, come early December, for everyone to scrub up, spiff up, and head Downtown to do the Christmas shopping, and enjoy a meal at the Boston Store restaurant. (What contemporary Milwaukeeans miss ... there still is a Boston Store, making do with part of the bottom two floors of the original store.) And you could look at the gadgets on the Lionel train displays, way fancier and beyond the budgets of most of the shoppers. (I blame the cult of the MBA for the end of the train displays. Some genius noted that there were trains left over after the end of the Christmas season, decided that the stock would be made available to Arlan's and Atlantic Mills, where it was stocked on shelves at everyday low prices. Families went to the department stores to look at the displays, found the stuff available at lower prices off the shelf at the discounters, bought it there. Then, inevitably, something broke. What happens next is not amusing.)
There is, still, a social experience to going shopping, which operators of today's emergent, distributed-network department stores might be discovering.
For retailers and their landlords, the future lies in giving customers a place to socialize and learn. Spending time with friends, meeting new people, and acquiring hands-on skills aren’t as enjoyable online. The challenge today is to recreate the old excitement for a new era, selling not exotic merchandise and unfamiliar culture but the pleasures of human contact and physical presence.There's another component, though. People, particularly the upscale high achievers Ms Postrel runs amid, have to figure out how to get their work done in thirty hours a week, rather than striving, striving, striving, and racking up those sixty hour weeks and rushed meals.