By Lee Peterson
It’s been 25 years since Ray Oldenburg coined the term third space. “A generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” as Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, wrote in 1989.
That might sound stuffy and stilted compared to the elegant way Howard Schultz uses the term to describe Starbucks, known universally as the “third space between work and home.” Of course, Schultz’s genius was in turning the concept into a viable business model. Yet there is far more to Oldenburg’s original concept.
I recently revisited Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. I wanted to make sense of the rather disheartening finding at the heart of a recent survey we did of 1,500 consumers nationwide: People don’t want to go to stores. More specifically, Young People prefer – by double-digit margins compared to Boomers – any technology that helps them avoid going inside a store at all. They don’t love shopping anymore. It’s a chore, not an experience.
Yet in The Great Good Place one reads of a lost retail world. A consumer culture few Young People experience today. After all, who refers to a big-box store at the nearby power center as the kind of place to go to “get through the day?”
The moniker Millennial no longer applies. This is the storeless generation. A generation raised in a chain-store world, one without third spaces, at least in the classic sense. After all, Oldenburg described third spaces as welcoming and comfortable, mostly free or inexpensive, and within walking distance; places with food and drink where regulars connected with new and old friends. Sadly, few stores play such a meaningful and emotional role in the lives of consumers today.
Instead, most stores are viewed as time-sucking establishments with unfriendly associates, vast expanses of space that rather than help you “get through the day,” require ample reserves of patience to merely get through. A store isn’t the place you go for “happily anticipated gatherings.” It is a place to be avoided.
So how does the storeless generation get “through the day” today? Based on frequency, with the heavy use of social media. Yet based on well-being, social media fails to play the kind of role in the lives of Young People that the third space once played in the lives of previous generations. Obsessive use of social media has created a latent craving for more meaningful social interactions in the real world, a growing body of research suggests.
Facebook and other social media sites are contributing to a new wave of mental health problems, and may actually be making users miserable. From a recent study of Facebook use, with an average participant age of 19, one researcher wrote: “On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.” Another study, a survey of 515 college-aged Facebook users with high social media use, found that “users displace real world social ties to online ones,” a process that ends up suppressing empathic social skills and life satisfaction.
In other words, the storeless generation, which has come of age at a time of dwindling physical third places and burgeoning virtual third spaces, find both spaces ultimately unsatisfying. It seems counterintuitive, but excessive social media – rather than threatening the business model for retailers – might actually present the greatest opportunity in generations.
In fact, innovative retail brands can still win back the storeless generation. Consider a recent survey by a team of environmental psychologists in Perth, Australia, which found that high quality public open spaces and shops are the two most beneficial types of places for creating a sense of community, well-being, security, and civic responsibility. Young People might not want to go inside a store if it is an errand, but perhaps more than any other generation, they still crave third places for social interaction. The problem is most stores aren’t delivering on the age-old promise of retail.
That’s why stores must find a way to make shopping easier – cut out the confusing store layout, untrained associates, check-out lines – and create new spaces where experiences and social interactions can happen. It’s time to reinvent and revive Oldenburg’s original concept of “third space.” Stores have always been a vital part of human well-being and community belonging, but there’s room to do more.
But can a big-box store truly be a third space in the classic Oldenburg sense? Recent research suggests yes, but stores need to make a strategic decision about what role they play in the lives of consumers: Are you merely a fulfillment center or do you have enough permission from consumers to turn your store into a third space again?
If the answer is the latter, the pleasure of shopping and the social interaction the younger generation crave can take center stage again.
It’s not too late.
Even Oldenburg said as much in a 2011 interview: “I think the typical American consumer is always looking for a friendly place. You know, we’re deprived.”