One day you will write your novel from the Xfinity Espresso Bar

In the future, indie cafes will be owned by Fortune 50 companies.

As Seattle is home to the headquarters of Amazon, Microsoft, and dozens of other tech firms like Zillow, our work at CritPlat often looks to our immediate surroundings. The social change catalyzed by large tech platforms is visible throughout our urban environment. Occasionally, Seattle is also a testbed for projects that offer a glimpse of “the future;” such as the checkoutless store called Amazon Go or large-scale private transit systems like the Microsoft Connector. Today, I had a strong sense that one such project is about to scale: it’s a lifestyle espresso bar hostsing retail space.

Today I encountered The Lounge by AT&T featuring Ada’s Discovery Cafe. As a grad student I spend a lot of time in coffee shops; I know Ada’s as one of the city’s treasured independent cafe-cum-bookstores. It was surprising, then, to see any 2nd location of Ada’s– no less one that is hosted by AT&T. Inside the cafe were the couches and pleasant lighting of a coffee shop blended into a device and broadband showroom. It had a large screen on the wall, which was playing the user experience of interacting with a phone or tablet. It was busy with customers at its many couches and work tables.

The Lounge by AT&T Cafe

This cafe is interesting because it sits at the fault lines of two different trends. First, many independent businesses in Seattle have closed in recent years due to the rising cost of rent. The Capitol Hill neighborhood is locally thought to have been home to artists, musicians, LGBTQ communities, and a mix of socioeconomic classes. With time, many locals have reported a sense of erasure and loss as the area is re-developed to accommodate an influx of tech workforce.

A second (unrelated) trend is the increasing role online shopping plays in U.S. consumer behavior. Commentators have eulogized brick-and-mortar retail as an industry in decline [1][3], to be replaced by smaller scale concept stores for consumers to demo a limited number of items, perhaps just to be “inspired [by the] experience” [1]. For example, Seattle’ Restoration Hardware “gallery…includes an interactive Design Atelier,” nothing inside the showroom is for sale, and they do not accept many returns in-store. This example (and its inconveniences) illustrates why other commentators argue that retail space will remain, albeit changed [2][5].

I believe that the Ada’s Discovery Store is one example of a growing trend. Large corporate retail spaces will create hybrid showrooms with coffee shops, leveraging the comfort and fondness they inspire in their clientele. Of course, many large cities could cite similar examples –c.f. Miele vacuum cleaner cafe in Berlin– but to me, AT&T’s decision to partner with Ada’s makes this different, akin to two pop stars joining their fanbases by producing tracks with a “featuring artist,” or a large clothing company like J. Crew trying to burnish its street cred by doing a collection with a trendier designer. Going forward, I expect to hear that this is somehow a good thing, by fighting homogeneity to embrace local businesses and culture. To me, it feels more like camouflage, in which large firms venture further into our lives by another name.

— Posted by Meg Young

 

[1] “Retail is Dead. Here’s What To Do Now.” Action, A. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabelacton/2017/05/16/retail-is-dead-heres-what-to-do-now/#7f6a4aa51d8f

[2] “Physical Retail Isn’t Dead. Boring Retail Is.” Dennis, S.¬† https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevendennis/2018/03/19/physical-retail-is-not-dead-boring-retail-is-understanding-retails-great-bifurcation/#77faef861981

[3] “Brick-And-Mortar Retail Isn’t Dead: Just Look At Who’s Moving Into Empty Toys ‘R’ Us Stores” https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/07/08/brick-and-mortar-retail-is-far-from-dead-just-look-at-whos-moving-in-to-replace-toys-r-us/#679af19b2d7b

[4] Restoration Hardware Seattle. https://www.restorationhardware.com/content/category.jsp?context=Seattle

[5] https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2018/05/21/1526877000000/Retail-is-not-dead/

 

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