Saturday, December 15, 2012

The future of shopping

I recently heard on the radio a report about the future of retail. Apparently in the future, the stores will 'hear' you coming by detecting the approach of your cell phone. That will bring your purchasing history up and the staff will be able to greet you by name and then direct you to the merchandise you're most likely to be interested in. The interviewer asked about the creepiness factor involved. The interviewee suggested that once we see that it will save us money and result in a more fulfilling shopping experience, we'll be all for it. No thanks. I think I'll stick with my hometown stores that don't have to pretend like they know me. I sometimes don't know quite how to respond when a checkout clerk at major retailer X, after reading my name on my credit card, thanks me by first name for shopping at this store. I am friendly enough about it, but I can't help thinking "You don't me!"

I like it when the clerks I actually do know engage me in authentic conversations. That did not happen instantly. It happens after many times of choosing to go to the small local retailer and building an acquaintance. Even that took some getting used to upon moving from busy town to small town. At first I did find it a bit annoying that the check out clerks thought they had to chat up each customer. Now that I'm one of those customers I do kind of like it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few thoughts for early December

Three to four inches of fresh powder on frozen ground. Nice conditions to ski around the campus loop. Just enough stick on the kick, nice slide on the glide. Or something like that. ‘Tho in my case it isn’t so much kick-and-glide as shuffle and shamble.

It was also nice to have my polymorphous, two-dimensional companion alongside. I did not realize how much I had missed seeing shadows. It had been cloudy for day after day until this recent high pressure brought nice clear skies. Around town, people remarked on the nice weather. Cold but clear. And no one even said ‘oh but we’ll pay for it later.’ That’s the response one often hears when we have clear, sunny days in winter. It’s not pessimism. It’s that we often get sloppy days after clear days when low pressure moves in after high pressure and drags gloomy skies along.


The city has a new place-making initiative to reshape the, well, shall we say, overlooked back side of part of our downtown. The back of that stretch of businesses that face the waterfront is not the most attractive part of our town. It could be a natural funnel to draw people to the adjacent downtown streets. That's the idea of the place-making initiative.

It was a well-organized and well-attended meeting. People shared their aspirations for what that part of our downtown could be. Open space for civic events, kind of a town square concept, seemed to be a common theme. This project runs through next summer, when a concept plan will be provided by the consultants with the hope that the concept plan will guide development and spur a search for funds to carry out the plan.

The meeting illustrated a sense-of-place concept I had not thought of until reading about it recently in a place-making blog, namely, the role of good governance. We have our share of shady insider deals in our town, as in any, but they are not institutionalized in the city government. From my perspective, our city government is open. The city commission and administrators really do listen at public listening sessions and projects do seem mainly to track public desires. We would not be considered an especially progressive town, but we do have some projects addressing land use planning and other sustainability ideas. Things move slowly, but that has the advantage that we’re not lurching from one new idea to the other.


We were considering dropping our subscription to the local paper. That’s a shocking move for us. “You gotta subscribe to the local paper,” we’ve always said. “How else will you know what’s going on?” Admittedly part of knowing what’s going on is seeing which of our students are in the police blotter feature. But it’s also a way to know of upcoming events. In speaking to other residents after some event, I often hear “I never even heard that was coming up.” I try not to say “Well I can’t help it that you’re un-informed.”

I’ve been reading about successful local papers that go beyond the police blotter, high school sports, obits and legals. Papers that have in-depth, local content. Ours needs more of that. Our next small town to the south has a weekly that does. We subscribed for a few years, but let our subscription lapse since learning about happenings in the neighboring county didn't have a favorable cost/benefit ratio for us. 

We would have gone Sunday only with our local paper, but that is not an option. (Reading the Sunday morning paper is a long-standing tradition in our household, even if it takes some effort to stretch the reading of the local Sunday paper out to 20 minutes). So we’ll keep our subscription for now. The next time our local paper runs duplicate stories from one day to the next, (it’s even been known to do it in the same edition), misses out on reporting what could have been a good local story, or drops another feature from its coverage, we’ll think again about whether to continue our subscription. We want to support local media but not as a pity purchase. We look for value that we can’t get elsewhere. Maybe Warren Buffet will buy our paper and fortify it.