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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Return of Bricks & Mortar

I do a lot of reading.  Biographies are my subject of choice because no matter how historically trivial or famous, everyone has a story.  And if you pay attention, you can learn a lot -- and save yourself a ton of heartache -- by listening to them tell those stories.

The biggest lesson common to all of those stories is that life changes a lot faster than you think.

At the moment, I'm absorbing the stories of people who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.  That's a hugely dynamic period of American history.  John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, was born before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, but by the time he died, radio, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, steam engines, automobiles, the War Between the States, the first world war and a host of other medical, industrial and technological inventions had come into existence, irrevocably changing every single American's way of life in a fairly short amount of time.   In just a few decades, horses and buggies gave way to cars and airplanes.  Gasoline, once considered a nuisance byproduct of kerosene refineries, provided the foundation for billion dollar fortunes.  Everything got better.  Everything went faster.

We've just gotten through a similar period.

Just a few decades ago, there was no internet. No social media. No point and click. No overnight delivery.  Telephones had rotary dials and most retail stores were closed on Sundays -- often on Saturdays, as well.

That all changed by 1998, however, when the internet got real, drastically changing the way humans interacted with businesses and each other.  Everyone and everything functioned on a 24/7  basis.  Corporate productivity and profit took huge leaps.  Stuff got cheaper. Stuff went faster.

Not everyone did so well, though.  Many commercial establishments blamed the "low-overhead" internet for their inability to sustain their "higher overhead" brick and mortar operations.  The online marketplace, they claimed, destroyed a lot of brick and mortar brands.

Nice excuses. None of it true -- especially now.

Brick and mortar is not only sustainable, but as of this writing, it's highly likely to flourish once again.  The reason is simple, but not one you'll find on any corporate balance sheet or in some self-appointed guru's latest best seller.

As of 2017, it's been nearly 20 years since the internet changed our ways of life.  Two decades is a short time to those who remember gas selling for 28 cents a gallon.  But it's a lifetime to a young, twenty-something adult who's never known anything other than pointing and clicking at a sterile, blue-tinged screen as the way to get through life.  Ask any young person about their frustrations, pressures and disappointments with the online world -- social media in particular -- and see how they respond.  I have.  They all report back the same answers:

Ineffective. Empty.  Pointless.

Okay, so maybe none of this is new you.  But here's something that might be:  The internet has created billions of very lonely people yearning for the human experience, which is precisely why bricks and mortar will come roaring back -- sooner than you think.

At this writing, we're going on three generations of social atomization, with the internet enabling billions of recluses to not socialize, as long as they use Facebook, Twitter and whatever other app is going IPO this week.  billions of posers are spending more time presenting their lives than actually living them, dying daily in their digital cocoons.

What these kids need is a place to go in real time to experience other living, warm, breathing humans.  They don't care what.  They don't care where.  It just has to be someplace real, where they can connect with other people.  And that's where bricks and mortar come in.  Mark my words, the re-emergence of totally analog retail environments is not too far off.  I'm not prognosticating a return of Sears or Woolworth or the local mall.   I'm talking about places and spaces with non-alcoholic activities incorporated into destinations whose primary purpose to shareholders may be revenues, but whose not-so-subtle agenda is to provide a gathering space with just enough purpose to drive shy, socially-ignorant millennials out into the real-time sunshine of social situations.

That's where the big money is going to be.  In and around bricks and mortar.  Out there, away from the screens and under the blue summer sky, where she can drop her car keys by accident -- so that he can be there to pick them up.


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