Drive-by wifi?

If we’re seriously looking—and you know I am—rarely a day goes by where we can’t spot some new sign of desperation in the retail sector. We can visit the stores themselves, and witness not just the deep sales (“By one dress shirt! Get another for a Penney!”). In the most incorrigibly floundering businesses, the thin distribution of merchandise on the shelves.  Or maybe they just dim the lights to save on power.

In keeping with the all-too-frequent ethos of this blog, the most banal observations often prove the most profound…sometimes even cataclysmic. Take this one, for instance:IMG_7469 In the unremarkable outskirts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we witness a nondescript standalone storefront, currently hosting a Verizon Authorized Reseller. The white banner out front suggests that it’s new to this location. The lettering directly facing the closest arterial road is a bit more visible.IMG_7471_editsAnything odd about this location? Well, it’s an outparcel in a larger shopping center—atypical for a Verizon. Verizon usually chooses strip malls, or in-line spaces within a bigger mall, which is exactly what would have happened if it were a Verizon store. Verizon Authorized Resellers, on the other hand, operate much more like restaurant franchises, locating wherever the reseller chooses, with little consideration for a target market, income density or general demographics.  But here’s the real clincher:Verizon with drive-thruThose two windows on the side are the drive-thru, which is probably one of the biggest reasons this Verizon outlet seems like such an oddity.

Since when did Verizon need the features of a drive-thru? It hasn’t, and it doesn’t. Sure, the devil’s advocate might rebut, “Maybe Verizon is testing out some new feature that actually can take advantage of a drive-thru window.” To which I’d respond, “Not likely. They’ve removed most of the drive-thru infrastructure.” The walkie-talkie apparatus on the opposite side of the building—where you’d order the curly fries with extra horsey sauce—is missing.IMG_7472What does this mean? Perhaps not much. The owner of the building lost the previous tenant (my bet—obviously—is that it was an Arby’s) and needed a new one. But why couldn’t the landlord find another tenant who would take advantage of a drive-thru window? Why not a Burger King or Wendy’s? Surely some franchise owner would look at this building and see dollar signs. Starbucks, operating on a purely corporate-led expansion plan, seems to prefer to construct its own facilities, at least when it involves a drive-thru in an outparcel. Any other possibilities? Is the income density in the surrounding area too weak for a Chipotle or Panera?

I could be missing out on a subtle reason why the property manager forged an agreement with Verizon. In these turbulent times, perhaps even restaurants seem risky, while something as overwhelmingly service-oriented as a Verizon Wireless store may appear to be the safest bet for a stable long-term lease with a tenant who will always pay on time. Who knows? But the visual evidence of this lease means one clear condition failed: what should have been this structure’s signature amenity has lost all its meaning. The drive-thru window was not a selling point.

Observations like this one in Lancaster may carry weight in more urban settings, where developers still routinely argue for a drive-thru feature in the first-floor retail of their newly proposed apartment building, even though the urban setting should promote walkability rather than a suburban, auto-oriented feature like a drive-thru. They like drive-thrus because the tenants like them. And they want to secure tenants. This phenomenon particularly evokes a situation in my home city of Indianapolis, where a developer proposing 400 more residential units downtown is happy to add retail…as long as it can include a CVS…with a drive-thru window. The city’s Department of Metropolitan Development balked at this proposal, since zoning within the regional center prohibits drive-thru windows and service lanes. But the Commission nonetheless approved a variance for a drive-thru, fearing that the developer may pull out of the proposal altogether if the City throws too many roadblocks.

But is a drive-thru even a slam-dunk? Are the drive-thru features so attractive that, should the CVS terminate its lease, the property managers will easily find a replacement tenant to capitalize on those windows? The Verizon situation in Lancaster suggests otherwise. And, if the next tenant to take the spot is a yoga studio or a salon, the auto-oriented infrastructure will serve no purpose. Bearing this in mind, the Metropolitan Development Commission could have said, “No, you don’t need a drive-thru. They aren’t the golden goose they once were.” Then again, the Indianapolis developer might retort, “Retail is so, so bad right now that if you can’t let us put a drive thru window in our first-floor storefront, we may have to abandon retail altogether to make the financials work.”

All speculation, of course. Regardless, it seems clear we’re a bunch of frogs in the kettle right now, and the rising temperature is analogous to the uncertainty of retail amidst this momentous technological change. With online ordering for food, it’s dubious how much longer we’ll need any drive thru. For that matter, how much longer is an outfit like Verizon even going to need bricks and mortar? (A decade ago, the frogs in the kettles were Sears and J.C. Penney. Now look where they are.) Most of the services these outlets provide are equally available online…and it could even be Verizon wifi (Fios) powering the online operations. Our froggy entrepreneurs might systematically jump out of all the nation’s kettles in the years ahead.

11 thoughts on “Drive-by wifi?

  1. Brian M

    Are you familiar with the blogger at GRANOLA SHOTGUN? I think you would find his photo essays and gloom-and-doom interesting!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hey Brian, I know I got linked things from Granola Shotgun in the past, but it’s been a while. And I completely forgot what the article was (forgot about GS in general, I confess). Is there a specific article you’d like me to check out? I’m all eyes.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks Chris. I’ll especially have to check out the Port Marigny article, since it looks like it’s about a development in Mandeville, LA, a suburb of New Orleans that I know fairly well.

          Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Funny you should mention that. I actually considered that and just called it the more generic “outlet” in my article. Perhaps you know how much of a difference that makes. Is an actual store corporate-run and the reseller more like a franchise? If so, would a corporate location be more selective about where it expands? I’m happy to change the content to get it right, even if it requires me to rethink the analysis.

      Reply
    2. Thomas Vincent

      It does make a difference. Verizon owned and run locations normally build their location to standard specification, and market analysis is part of the decision making process. An authorized reseller basically does what they want, where they want.

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Good to know. Obviously it’s a two-way street, so in this case, the landlord also agreed to lease to a Verizon reseller, even though the reseller would never use the building’s drive-thru features. Verizon-owned is more strategic, much the way Starbucks is with its locations (100% corporate-owned).

        Reply
      2. Sean

        For posterity I’ll recommend everyone stay with a real Verizon store.. I would recommend avoiding resellers at all costs. You won’t get the same support after the sale. If your phone hits a snag you may not be able to get the same phone or there may be an extended wait. Many of these places are fly by night. Corporate stores will greatly reduce the chances of anything going wrong pre and post sale

        Reply
  2. Brian M

    Nothing specific. One of his many themes is the (dark) future of the throwaway suburban commercial landscape.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the heads up, Brian. I’ll have to revisit Johnny’s blog, since it seems closer to the spirit of what I’m up to than anything else out there that I’ve read.

      I’m interested in your thoughts (and his, and anyone else’s) on the nature of the label “throwaway” applied to suburbia. I agree that there’s much we could easily interpret as throwaway in suburbia, but I’m not sure it’s as reflective of a unique suburban attitude as it is simply the direct consequence of income growth coupled with how we as americans consume–and dispose of–places. Bearing that in mind, the urban landscape proved fairly “throwaway” as well, at least in terms of our behavior by the mid-20th century. And at least some of those 19th century Italianate commercial buildings clearly were fully built to last…while many others simply existed to meet market demand. The only reason the 19th century urban forms seemed to have lasted longer was that, up until the era of Levittown, we didn’t yet have a democratization of middle class values that aligned with a rethinking of how we spatialized ourselves. Up until that point, the bigger shift was for rural people to move to the cities, which made urban real estate more valuable, not less. Then it all changed, and by 1960–if not sooner–the general perception was that many downtown buildings were completely obsolete.

      That said, I don’t think suburbia was disposable by design. It just turned out that way because our preferences keep evolving, at greater speed than ever before. In 2017, we genuinely DO construct buildings with a depreciation cycle of a single generation–or less. But that’s true of the vinyl villages of suburbia as well as the EIFS-clad mixed-use buildings filling in the vacant lots downtown. Will we eventually grow less restless to the point that we genuinely demand buildings that last hundreds of years? That remains to be seen.

      Reply

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