TCS Daily

The Comfy-Chair Revolution

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 16, 2002 12:00 AM

I've noticed a gradual change in public surroundings over the past few years, and I think it's driven in part by personal technology. Unlike the hard, unappealing settings of traditional retail space (ground rule: "get 'em in, get their money, get 'em out"), more and more places instead appear designed actually to encourage customers to linger.

Some of these are obvious, like the cozy coffee bars and cafes featured by many bookstores. But the phenomenon has spread to less obvious locales. In the mall near my house, for example, an Abercrombie spinoff called Hollister & Co. features comfortable leather chairs complete with endtables and stacks of magazines. The first time I was there I joked to a salesgirl that I might come back with my laptop and camp out. "People do," she responded. And when I went back a couple of weeks later, the circle of armchairs nearest the cash registers was completely occupied by teenagers with cellphones and PDAs. A conversation with a couple of staffers confirmed that the store was intentionally designed to serve as a "hangout."

And I think that may be the key. In the old days, retailers knew that most people squeezed shopping in between the office and home. The goal was to sell as much as possible to people during the relatively small amount of time they could be away from those places. Hence the keep-'em-movin' philosophy.

But people live differently now. Lots of people work independently, or part-time, or work as telecommuters. The lifestyle is more fluid, in part because technologies like cellphones, laptops, and PDAs allow people to work wherever they are, or to stay in touch with family or teenagers without direct supervision. I see a lot of folks with that kind of personal tech hanging out wherever there's a pleasant setting, checking email, returning calls, or writing. It's work that doesn't quite feel like work.

This fluidity gives retailers and other businesses a different kind of opportunity. Retailers have always tried to sell not just sweaters, but a lifestyle. But if you become somebody's hangout, you don't just sell a lifestyle, you're selling a life. If price and selection are the main basis for competition, people can always buy on the Internet, but people - teenagers especially, but everyone -- will still want a place to go.

Does it work? Well, I'm writing this on a laptop in a Borders right now, comfortably ensconced on a leather couch and waiting for the line to thin so I can order a latte. I do a lot of writing here, especially during the summers or on breaks when the university is closed. (And they sell me more books and CDs as a result) A few years ago, in the pre-laptop era, it would have been a lot harder to both work and hang out; I'm sure I would have done it less.

Since I first noticed this trend, I've seen examples all over, and not just among businesses - in fact, a new public library in my area is breaking the old library taboo against food and installing a luxurious coffee bar of the sort normally found only in chain book superstores. And, as Virginia Postrel reports, malls are starting to work harder at becoming better places to hang out, not just to shop.

If the trend continues, you can expect to see all sorts of amenities added: not just comfy chairs and beverage service, but wireless broadband Internet access (my brother-in-law, who owns a couple of coffeehouses, has already been approached by vendors who specialize in that market), fireplaces, books and magazines (already begun at Hollister & Co.) and other furnishings and services designed to keep customers hanging around and in a receptive mood, with the business reaping its rewards in the form of impulse buys and customer loyalty. (Society in general benefits, too, from an abundance of safe, comfortable places to hang out, something that advocates of "community" were calling for just a few years ago.)

The recession may slow this trend, or it may accelerate it. People like to go out, and providing inexpensive hangouts may draw business more in a recession than when people are feeling flush. And it may be cheaper, too. You can buy a lot of comfy chairs for the price of a single Super Bowl ad slot.


The Comfy-Chair Revolution
This increase in the comfort of commercial space: benches at the mall, couches in bookstores, and the like, seems to have accompanied a decline in comfort in public and semi-public spaces like city parks, schools, libraries, and YMCA's.

Where I live, in San Diego, the schoolyards are locked after school, the YMCA pools have steel bleacher seats for the parents to sit on, the city parks have metal benches, and the libraries have limited hours.

I have childhood memories of spending hours at the park and at the pool while my mother sat at a picnic table with other mothers. There seems to be more of a, "do your business and get going" attitude towards our public places today.

On the other hand, it may just be that there are more fat people around. Fat people like to sit, and prefer couches to chairs.

Hangin' the Fashion Warehouse
So this is not what malls were all about, 35 years ago when people still went there? Malls failed (in part) because they made it hard to shop, for customers who knew what they needed and had better things to do. It isn't economics that causes this kind of phony leisure: it's the lack of what we used to call "a life." Someone needs a puppy and a nice woodburning pencil.

Y'know, I think I'll just call my doctor for an appointment, then make the high-fashion scene in that comfy, magazine-rich waiting room. Sounds about as appealing.

TCS Daily Archives