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Bright Green Retail
Alex Steffen, 23 Jul 09
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To live in the modern world is to be a purchaser of things. We all shop.

Many of us are paying more attention to the quality and impact of the things we buy. More and more of us are questioning how much we shop and whether we need so much stuff in the first place. But in the last few years, there's a been a quiet revolution emerging in where and how we shop as well.

Right now, many of us in the developed world shop by driving to large chain stores -- this is especially true in North America, but has become common elsewhere too. The problem is, this way of shopping adds an enormous ecological burden to all the good we buy: not only do we burn gas getting to the store and back, but the building and operation of that store and its parking lot have a huge impact; the supply chain that keeps huge stores stocked with masses of various kinds of goods adds more impacts; while the packaging and sales presentation of the goods we buy tops it all off with more energy and materials waste. From the lighting to the loading docks, the freezer cases to the shopping carts, conventional retail is unsustainable.

Retail today has other costs as well. Big chain stores are not generally known for their excellent labor practices, meaning that part of the savings we get by shopping in them comes from the mistreatment of the people who serve us while we're there. The kinds of volumes that it takes to stock big box chain stores means that these stores will only buy things in huge orders, often from the lowest-cost big provider, which often means supporting sweat shop work conditions, factory farmed food or toxic knock-off products. Furthermore, because the backstories of the objects they sell is often so atrocious, big chain stores are often at the forefront of fighting transparency and labeling laws (Walmart's latest effort may or may not be an exception to the trend).

Not all chains are as bad as this, of course, and certain leaders, like Marks and Spenser, have shown that even giant retail corporations can take seriously their ethical obligations and offer better products, with clearly labeled impacts, in more energy-efficient stores. But there are real limits to how much the model of big box, auto-dependent chain stores can be improved.

A better model is emerging. Innovative companies that are changing not only their stores themselves, but how the whole experience of shopping works and what it means. Think of it as bright green retail.

What are the main components of this better way of shopping?

*Webfronts: having stores which work as the physical showroom for a virtual store, which let you try clothes on, try tools out, and so on, and then order the thing online for later delivery, saving money and facilitating smaller storefronts, minimal stock costs and car-free shopping.

*Flexible spaces: sharing under-utilized spaces between multiple businesses, for instance, having two restaurants share one space by offering meals at different times of the day, which cuts down on their costs and maximizes the use of the facility, lowering its ecological impact.

*Microcommerce: direct purchases from a producer (whether at a farmer's market or an online service like the craft site Etsy) means more of your money goes to supporting that producer, rather than middlemen and brokers. Increasingly, there are even stores and markets designed to mix the webfront model with microcommerce, offering sample products from small-scale producers, like São Paulo's Endossa (pictured above).

*Backstories and display transparency: backstory management has become a big trend, provoking leading companies to explore new ways to not only try to track everything that went into their products but where and how they were made. Increasingly, these backstories are being built into the brand identity of the product itself, and detailed information about their origins and performance is being made available online (sometimes without a company's permission). When companies actively engage in transparency, though, they also gain another benefit: they can offer their customers participatory retail experiences, allowing them to pick the precise origins and characteristics of the products they will by, down to the farmer that grew their coffee, or the worker who assembled their laptop.

*Delivery: the shipment of good from producer to store, and store to customer has been undergoing a rapid shift, with a move toward low-impact shipping and home delivery from centralized locations, both of which save enormous amounts of energy. Even bigger savings are to be had through dematerialized delivery (Netflix streaming a movie to your TV instead of you picking up a DVD at the video store) and decentralized manufacturing (having a neighborhood fabber where you can go to pick up a printed-out version of the product you've ordered online).

*Dropshops and reverse supply chains: as producer responsibility and zero waste laws become more common, "reverse" supply chains -- systems for taking back products, breaking them down, recycling and/or salvaging their parts and then getting them to the appropriate manufacturer for reuse -- become needed parts of the commercial system. Some leading thinkers have begun to imagine that returning used products may become a major part of the shopping experience, that special stores may even emerge to facilitate consumer returns (I like to think of them as "drop shops") by offering a cafe setting, public information on the future fate of the returns dropped off in that store, and affirmation of the consumer's effort. This would make a chore more pleasurable while building further brand loyalty in shoppers who can look forward to enjoying returning a product almost as much as they enjoyed buying it. Perhaps they'll even shop for the replacement while they're there.

No single one of these innovations will suddenly reverse the massive damage mega-scale retail is doing to the planet (and our communities), but taken together, they offer the outline of something pretty exciting: a smarter way of connecting to better stuff, with a smaller impact on the planet.

Photo credit: "Endossa" by flickr/g.ferris, Creative Commons license.

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Do webfronts really work? I remember reading about Nau who tried using their stores as show rooms for people to try on clothes, purchasing at a kiosk then having the products shipped to their home. Apparently it wasn't successful, they had really low conversion rates turning customer visits into sales and was, at least in part, related to their financial problems and demise. Maybe they were just ahead of the curve but you can't help to think that people want to walk away with something when they buy something from a store.

Posted by: Saul Good on 24 Jul 09

If we are just beginning to question whether we shop too much or own too much stuff, we are in really deep trouble. A sustainable world means living within the bounds of the Earth's resources and its capacity to handle our wastes. Remember, we need 4 or 5 planets to support it current population at the levels of (mostly needless) consumption at US rates. Cleaning up the consumption and waste processes with webfronts and take-back policies will just delay the day of reckoning.

The question is not whether we shop too much; the question is what is the appropriate paradigm for continued existence of our species and the many other species that give resilience to life on this planet. It surely isn't unending economic growth and the accumulation of stuff.

Posted by: John Faust on 24 Jul 09

Very interesting observations. I dont think webfronts as you describe them will ever be successful for retailers. If someone is interested enough to try something on you want to be able to close the sale right then and let them take it with them. The minute they leave your store they will find something else and not return, unless you have an incredibly unique item. They also are still using gas to come try it on and then using shipping gas to pay for if later. It seems as though it is best it that can just pay and go.

Posted by: retailer on 24 Jul 09

All in all, a well written article. There are no silver bullets, but individuals who care about the future of the human species can effect change. Yes, radical change is needed, but it's difficult to get the mainstream to change overnight. That's why I work to get kids hooked on nature. Nature teaches us all we need to know!

Posted by: Tim Magner on 25 Jul 09

Thanks much for this awesome entry.

Posted by: coupons for groceries on 26 Jul 09

Obviously the hi(gher)-tec component of these ideas is a clear difference but within my lifetime we had this quaint system where you went out shopping, ordering your goods (mainly food, but certainly most of the conventional portable items were sourced too) from local merchants who then despatched them to you via a bicycle operative with a natty hat, red rosy cheeks, a cheerful whistle and bright shiny bell. Trrrng! Trrng!

Posted by: Mark Harrison on 28 Jul 09

It feels so good to read a fair and objective article.

Posted by: Bill S on 29 Jul 09

I believe drop shops will work as more people become used to the idea. If you look at the way men vs women shop for example, men tend to purchase the same thing over and over again. I brand of tools or the same style of jeans, even if their sizes change. If you are always going to buy your Levi's 501s then most men would prefer to never have to set foot in a store again. Women currently see shopping as a form of "therapy" and status so it is less useful to them but this is only part of the purchasing population and as the acceptance of this attitude reverses, online shopping will become more and more appealing for many of the "have no time" women out there. Also, as somebody who lives nine hours from any large city, I know for a fact that people in this community that used to purchase, say, a piece of furniture, by driving that nine hours will now be more likely to either purchase from a local manufacturer or order online. Many shops will offer a discount if you wait on a particular piece for there to be multiple orders... our office receives a discount on supplies by joining a collective purchasing system to have all our supplies delivered on the same day as others in town who order from that source to save trips by a courier.
The bottom line though is that we all need to realize that we don't need new/as much stuff. Period.

Posted by: andrea on 30 Jul 09

When we founded Nau and developed the concept of a "Webfront" (which came from our founder Eric Reynolds) one of the key questions, and key unknowns, was whether or not customers would choose to have their purchases shipped to them instead of carrying them out the door. After all, conventional retail wisdom was that instant gratification was synonymous with the shopping experience.

Prior to opening our first webfront we conducted research to help us understand people's propensity to shift traditional behavior patterns. The research, although not exhaustive, suggested that once a $100.00 purchase price was exceeded, 70% of customers would opt to take advantage of the 10% discount we were offering by having their product shipped to them. We chose to ignore the research because we knew there would be a learning and adoption curve given the requirement for a change in behavior. As a result, the assumption built into our business plan was that when we opened our doors 20% of customers would choose the "ship to you" option. We then surmised that given in store education we could grow that number to 30% by the end of year one and ultimately to 70% within four years of operation.

What were our actual results? During our first year of operation we opened four stores in four different markets. What we saw, from store to store and from market to market, was that out of the gate 40% of our customers were choosing to have their purchases shipped to them. We considered that result to validate the efficacy of the Webfront concept.

I concur with the dialogue about shifting overall consumption patterns. That has to happen. But that doesn't diminish the possibilities associated with the rationale for Webfronts. In addition to being more financially efficient then traditional stores, Webfronts are more efficient environmentally given their reduced footprint and gains associated with inventory management and shipping efficiencies.

Posted by: Ian Yolles on 1 Aug 09

Come ON. Your logic is backward from the beginning. Substituting "web front" for "big box" is turning one short car ride into lots of long truck hauls. The most efficient way to get products to consumers is en mass. This is the central tennant of bigger stores -- less cost per unit for transport as volume increases. If you've ordered from Amazon you know that your 3 books will arrive in 3 different UPS trucks... each truck idling at the curb and each book wrapped in its own (non-recycled) box. Compare that to a quick trip to Home Depot in my Toyota hybrid. I pick up 10 things I need in one trip and go home happy. The carbon advantage is in big boxes, not lots of little boxes crossing the mountains every time you click!

Posted by: Worreldpeace on 14 May 10

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