If you’re like me, you love the idea of shopping local and supporting local trade. And you hate thinking that your reliance on convenience may in some part be accountable for small businesses going under.
Things were looking bleak for the UK high street a good fifteen years before I upped sticks and moved to California – with tech having a devastating effect on bricks-and-mortar retail. And in the cruel wake of coronavirus, the final nail might have been driven into the coffin for many small businesses.
Yet, when we come out the other side, could it be tech that paradoxically becomes the thing that helps resurrect, or at least reimagines, buying behaviours from the previous 50 years?
25 years ago, the high street or shopping centre was a town’s heartbeat. It’s where you bought, browsed, binged or hung out. But Amazon changed all that. It made the idea of getting in your car and jostling for the one remaining space on the multi-story’s eighth floor, then fighting the herds every wet weekend, completely senseless.
Retail came to you: inspiration served up by prominent influencers. The ability to buy, try and exchange was all of a sudden at your fingertips.
With the odd exception, it’s virtually no different in California. They have their high streets in quaint villages too, and they’re struggling. Independent shops (the ones consumers actually want) can’t afford the eye-watering rents. And most traditional strip malls are boarded up with tumbleweed tossing and left eerily vacant.
The retail estates that appear to be booming are high-end malls with flagship stores and luxury brands. Unsurprisingly, the attraction is that these places offer an experience over and above pure shopping, with food and drink playing a central role.
But what I’ve twigged is that some stores and cafes beyond the high-end malls were thriving, buzzing in fact, despite the omnipresent predictions and pessimism about the economy, even before Covid-19.
This hypothesis first occurred to me after the morning school run. Every day after flinging my daughter out the Tesla, I’d go to my local Starbucks. It’s one of the better Starbucks in the area. The crew know my name, and know not to spell it Barry (annoying) and know my order too. The one downside is that it’s always, always packed – and quite often at odd times of the day it’s total pandemonium. Whereas, the Starbucks 100 yards down the road in the Safeway never has a queue of more than a handful of people.
They serve the same coffee.
The same friendly service.
There’s parking almost always out the front.
And you can pick up some groceries if needed, too.
And it’s not that the Starbucks isn’t well branded, or signposted.
What differentiates the buzzing Starbucks from the quiet one is the location of the Tesla Superchargers behind the shop.
Tesla has pretty much created a monopoly in electric cars in California. You only need to look at its peak share price to see how in demand they are. Generally speaking, buying a petrol car and filling her up with gas seems akin to buying a box of Marlboro Red, and filling your lungs with toxins. So electric makes more sense, if not for the joy, then purely for the environmental and health reasons. And if you buy electric in California, you’d be more likely to buy Tesla. Not only are they the cars with the greatest range, they also are the only cars with Superchargers all over the state. The Supercharger significantly reduces “fuelling” time. Plus, Tesla, cunningly, promotes its new cars with free charging for life.
Despite mind-blowing acceleration and iPhone levels of tech, the Tesla still has the perceived drawback of its charging times. On average, I wait around 45 minutes for every charge. That’s three quarters of an hour every few days that I now have to plan my life around.
But these minutes have become quite precious to me. As my car charges, I can run into the grocery store, devour my egg-whites kale omelette, or more often than not, grab a coffee from Starbucks and call my mum, meet my realtor (they do that here), or catch-up on work emails and calls. And I’m not alone in how the time is used.
The Los Gatos Superchargers near me have 12 stations. And more often than not, there’s a short line (queue) to wait for one to become free. This means a constant cycle of customers for local stores with time, and money, to spend. Not that Tesla drivers are all wealthier, but unlike the $70 or $80+ it costs to fill an Audi, it only costs around $10 to charge a Tesla. So, some of the money you don’t spend on fossil fuel, you are happy to spend elsewhere.
My theory then, is the areas with a Supercharger probably get a disproportionately higher local spend than areas without.
And this got me thinking.
Conventional petrol cars will become a thing of the past during the next decade or so. And therefore, conventional gas stations will suffer the Blockbuster effect too. Therein lies the opportunity.
Fuel companies like Shell and BP will all of a sudden have a significant amount of real estate that will need a considerable rethink. No longer will they be “grab-n-go” retailers. They will need to distinguish themselves from their competitors much more on experience than they will price. And they will need to establish greater links with local communities and businesses, to make sure wait times are spent productively.
They could partner with Amazon or FedEx for example, and become pick-up points for online shopping.
They could partner with Netflix to become places where content is watched on your car’s screen as it charges – like an old school drive-in movie.
They could partner with quick service restaurants and introduce a dine-in service like high-end cinemas where food and beverages are brought to your car.
And because Superchargers have no emissions, and no nasty fumes or gagging chemical smells, they are much more welcome in high-footfall retail and community spaces. So instead of seeing your local gas station on the outskirts of town, in the near future, we might now start seeing Tesla, BP or Shell Superchargers in the hearts of vibrant towns and cities.
This seems to make perfect sense. The car, whether your own or an Uber or Lyft, is central to retail. It can help you transport your groceries, shopping spree splurges, or take you to and from bars and restaurants. And electric cars can do this without the disruption of noise or air pollution.
The frustration then, of an electric car charge time, could possibly be the catalyst that helps bring cash back into our local retail spaces.
Beri Cheetham is chairman and chief creative officer of The Gate San Francisco.