In Real Life Used to Matter. It Will Again.
Reoccupying the world after life in the time of coronavirus
It’s a well-know fact that humans actively dislike change — indeed, we go to great lengths to avoid it. And if it is unavoidable, we generally like to navigate change as quickly and painlessly as possible, like acne or taxes.
Life in the time of coronavirus (apologies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez) is by edict and by necessity isolating. It’s forced many changes, including how and where and if we work; how and with whom we can be social, even intimate. It’s acne AND taxes in one, never-ending homebound dystopia.
Tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts enable some forms of socializing to continue. And there’s all the apps. But all the other ways in which we hang out and just talk and have fun together IRL have been off the table. Though it’s really only been weeks, it feels like years.
Like many of us, I’ve been reflecting a lot on things I miss in these strange and challenging times. Social things. Happy things. Bar crawls and movies and dinner parties and baseball games. Window shopping.
That reflection has also been infused with some fear and dread, too. Will Original Joe’s in San Francisco’s North Beach district—a restaurant my grandparents and parents took me to, and where I’ve continued to go throughout my adult life—survive? Can I depend on it reopening for a sunny, lazy Sunday brunch with my spouse and best pals in the future? Will I be able to watch a San Francisco Giants game at its bar, drinking beer (and then inevitably martinis) while chowing down on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs?
While I think (hope!) the answer is yes to all these probably silly questions, Maveron partner Jason Stoffer recently tweeted an interesting question of his own along these lines, in which he referenced “experiential retail.”
It got me thinking about what comes next. What comes after life in the time of coronavirus.
When I was a little kid, big things happened at department stores. The rooftop at The Emporium during the holidays was pure magic. The Christmas Tree at the City of Paris (and later Neiman-Marcus). The fabulous springtime flower show at Macys. There was always something going on to draw you in, excite your imagination, and, of course, inspire you to slap down that credit card.
Those old-timey retailer used to know something that is still true today: humans are by instinct social. We not only crave meaningful interaction with others, we need it. We crave shared experiences with people we like and love and work with and care for.
And so I think Jason is on to something when he talks about being bullish on experiential retail. There was something about that holiday rooftop at the old Emporium on Market Street that drew families in from all over the San Francisco Bay Area for many generations. It was exciting. It was fun. It became a tradition.
So if that’s a bygone era, what is next?
One thing’s for sure: it’s not nothing. Again, social is something we humans are hardwired to do, and Zoom and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok only go so far. We want — no, we need — to get out into the real world and really, physically connect with others.
It’s why I think Original Joe’s still matters. Shared experiences of all kinds will still matter, whether retail or not. There will still be demand for what those were and what they can still be.
This means human-scale storefronts in local neighborhoods can become programmable spaces in which beautifully crafted, originally packaged, and sensorially presented products and services can also be sold.
Retailers can work with theater people and musicians, DJs and movie people, poets and artists to make magical experiences that also sell stuff. And vice-versa! Entrepreneurs will make and sell products, but also place those products within IRL contexts that reflect a clear, empathetic understanding of the humans those products were designed for.
But all that’s still a little ways away. (Mark my words: it’s coming, maybe with masks and a little social distancing, but come it will.) For now, we’re still locked down, sheltering in place, and quarantining. We’re doing our best to be social via one screen or another, one app or another for far too many hours every day.
More change is coming. But some things will never change. Both can be good.