The Department Store of the Amazon and New Urbanist Age

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. Image by the author.

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. And yes, it’s blurry on purpose. Tell me I’m not wrong for feeling this way at the end of an IKEA trip. Image by the author.

As of this writing, I’ve just learned that the Belk at the Four Seasons Mall, the last remaining enclosed mall in Greensboro, will close at the beginning of 2015. I fully expect two things at that mall. One, it will go the way of the Carolina Circle Mall, our other enclosed mall and be torn down and replaced with a super Walmart. Or two, it will be rebirthed à la North Hills in Raleigh, JC Penney in tact and Target attached.

My theories are leaning towards the later. Walmart Neighborhood Market just arrived in the space of an old Borders (which was doing well until the chain itself went under), that’s just about a half-mile away and it seems to be happy and doing fine. As of this writing, I have investigated this claim in person, and walked out with a large tub of sea salt caramel ice cream. There are benefits to the world domination of Walmart.

Likewise, there are also benefits to the world domination of Amazon. Big box and traditional department stores either step their game up and stay in business or they count their losses and combine forces at one central location, as the Greensboro Belk will do, by going to Friendly Center. I also would like to note here that at one point, Friendly Center was said to be on the rocks. Now, it’s our shining example of that hybrid that I mentioned of the mall and the main street.

Getting back to that hybrid idea for a moment, although I bemoan the new North Hills’s gentrification from a housing standpoint, its efficiency is bar none. All the places I love to shop, save IKEA and the Limited are right on site. The best plain wings in North Carolina are right in-house at the Q Shack.  I get my chicken quesadilla fix at Moe’s and yes, I still have a soft spot for Chic-Fil-A chicken nuggets, which is conveniently located next to the movie theater, giving me more options besides popcorn for movies. Harris Teeter is now across the very busy Six Forks Road, but so is the brand new North Hills amphitheater and several other fun spots. The crosswalks are long and safe enough, it’s not so bad.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the suckling power of the Great Bullseye, the crown jewel of this setup. Just look at this map of how Target has grown over the years. The sad part is that map stops at 2008. I’m sure the map is completely red at this point. What is it really about the store? The Wikipedia entry gives a great nod to the attention to customer experience. When I come to Target, I’m not prompted in-between sad old songs to buy things. (Although, I will interrupt my Target love fest to say that the IKEA’s choice to play disco era jams during my last visit was also spot on. But more on the big blue box in a minute).

Target’s usually a stop after work when I’m tired and I need time to process my day, as well as pick up a few things. I know that most of those things will be there. Plus, I get entertained by a few wants and for the most part they don’t fall into my cart. Even with the card security issues, Target offers an actual happy experience over crowded spaces, extremely overpriced, but of similar quality clothing, and just the right foods to stock up my pantry. Once again, they are committed to being a part of city life too, with stores in mixed use developments, traditional malls, East Harlem and its new CityTarget concept in the Chicago Loop.

That other big box of weakness, IKEA, does its part to be urbanist and hip to the Amazon Prime crowd. You can actually see what everything looks like, in a real room setup. Now granted, I’m used to this, having grown up a stones throw from the furniture capital of the world and the year-round, well-dressed, showrooms of furniture of real wood and already-assembled craftsmanship. However, how many stores show you how cool your studio apartment really is? How many stores have kitchen and bathroom and office planning consultants on site? And seriously, how many have pillows made of hearts with arms ready for hugs. Sure, you’ll probably need lots of hugs after you finish putting together all that furniture, but they’ve also made sure you ate well coming in and out of the door.

Like all for-profit companies, including that Amazon, there have been issues with labor, poor products, poor customer service and once again, that many of these stores are always in driving distance. Yet, they do deliver. This, is what makes IKEA and Target, in my opinion, the department stores that will lead the way as we become more digital and return to the traditional main streets from the malls and the box stores.

All this to say that the Four Seasons Mall will not die from this announcement. It has a major Sheraton hotel and convention operation in its parking lot. It has one of those other hip for the digital age stores, H&M, which just moved in a little less than a year ago. It has lost and regained its movie theater, a major way of bringing traffic in that doesn’t involve the consumption of objects as much as it does the experience. The Greensboro Coliseum is only a mile away and it’s the bookend to the city’s new effort to revitalize and reinvigorate the soon to be Gate City Boulevard corridor. Its formal name is now the Four Seasons Town Centre, which would make it easy for someone like General Growth Properties, who currently owns the mall, to convert and market it in a manner similar to its Durham mall, The Streets of Southpoint, once the demand and demographics change. Even now, with its frontage onto I-40, it can still function as a great regional mall and destination, like it has in the past.

Yet,  all these ideas put revitalization and customer service in the hands of the companies. How does placemaking and tactical urbanism deal with retail and purchasing needs? Stay tuned.

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About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.