ICYMI – Week of September 15, 2017

  • Harbinger of a shift in automobile retailing and of the future of malls? With Tesla and car-sharing challenging what owning a car means, the traditional car manufacturers have had to get creative. In the latest – Mercedes is opening up “Mercedes me” stores in malls around Canada.
  • Speaking of redefining retail – Apple announced it is going to start referring to stores as “Town Squares” in an effort to turn their commercial locations into broader gathering places and “communities.”
  • Bloomberg short-lists the likely locations for Amazon’s HQ2 to six cities, with the caveat: “five could be eliminated by politics” (spoiler: five of the six cities are in the US, the sixth is Toronto). It’s a compelling argument considering Toronto actually meets the qualifications easily, though I’m not sure how Toronto’s incentives stack up against those of US cities. An interesting counter-argument was proposed by City Lab: how will Amazon employees deal with Ontario’s foreign-buyer’s tax? I don’t foresee this as a major issue, though, as a bigger chunk of that 50,000 workforce would be Canadian.
  • Meanwhile, tech companies are happy to pay premium rents in order to be closer to talent, upending traditional notions of lower-rent seeking as costs of labour for technology and professional services continue to grow as a share of operating costs.

ICYMI – Week of September 8, 2017

  • Boomer’s aren’t leaving the suburbs (as fast as people thought). BisNow reports on the trends of baby boomers staying put in their suburban houses instead of moving to more connected, higher density living that many have anticipated would happen. In the same vein of miscalculation as millennials, those waiting for a boomer tsunami have not quite wrapped their heads around the fact that terms such as “millennial” and “baby boomer” are broad demographic categories, not a specific group of people who all have the exact same tastes and desires at the same time. Like millennials, boomers encompass a large age-group and people in that age-group are going to make key life decisions at different times, not all at once. So the lesson is: yes, boomers will eventually leave their large suburban homes and move to smaller, denser apartments in the city. However, it won’t happen until they’re too old to care for their homes, a phase which is easily 20-years away for those in the median of the age group and will take roughly 30-40 years after that. A trickle, not a tsunami.
  • The St. Louis Dispatch reports that brick-and-mortar retail isn’t dead, it’s undergoing a transition. Although we often hear much about malls and long-standing stores closing down, the actual numbers on brick and mortar retail reportedly show a net gain: retailers in the US built, on average, 4,000 more stores than they closed down in 2017. Now, this report comes from an industry group and I haven’t come across any data to check myself, but it’s an otherwise positive spin on what sounds like terrible news. So, the retail apocalypse isn’t an apocalypse, it’s just change.
  • Amazon made waves this week with an announcement that they were looking for locations for a second North American Headquarters. Thinkers, bloggers and mayors are rolling over themselves trying to guess or bid on why their city is the ideal location for the new Amazon HQ, while residents of Seattle are sending warnings. My take: Amazon isn’t posting this as a popularity contest. If they really were just interested in finding a good location alone, they would have announced the location with the news, not issued an “RFP” for cities to bid on. Amazon is looking for who can provide the juiciest tax break/incentive package here. I like this one clever Redditor’s theory: “Here is my guess: Amazon already knows but will sit by while city & states fight over with massive subsidies & grants. Eventually Amazon will ask whatever city they already chose if they can match it & then surprise everyone with their choice.”

ICYMI – Week of August 25, 2017

  • Millennials are moving to the suburbs after all, reports Bloomberg. This has always been a strange battle between the demand side (industry) and the supply side (policy-makers). Of course the more rational answer is that it’s both, but identifying an underlying cause for why Boomers embraced sub-urbanization and why millennials haven’t (thus far) hasn’t been as straightforward as many would think. My answer has lain in the demographics – millennials are starting families much later than our parents did, so the desire for a suburban lifestyle has been more delayed than completely replaced. Additionally, it’s also been less an issue of personal choice, as the economic fallout of the Great Recession has definitely played a major role in many young people’s abilities to afford the suburban lifestyle (buying a house and a car). As the economy has recovered and young people are finding gainful employment again, they seem to be embracing the suburban lifestyle.
  • Japan, ever struggling with an aging population, also has to contend with rising urbanization and what it means for smaller towns and rural areas.
  • The NYTime wrote a piece on “co-living spaces” – communal housing units where resident apartments are limited to the basics (bedroom+bathroom?) and other spaces, such as kitchens, dining, living areas are all shared. The most interesting bit of the article, for me, though is “You won’t find much of that outside the building, which is why this Urby is essentially a vertical — and interior — neighborhood.”
  • I’ve often wondered about the intersection of the technology industry and urbanism – will we have a resurgence of the old “company town”? Considering many of North America’s major technology hubs are in existing cities, it might be a different evolution. In that theme, the Seattle Times wrote about Amazon’s footprint on the city.

ICYMI – Week of July 21, 2017

 

  • Bloomberg reports that London’s housing prices have flat-lined. The article puts forward quotes from several authorities on real estate economics, but the gist of it is that housing prices went well beyond normal ranges in the last few years and are slowing to “normal” levels. In another article, Bloomberg reports that luxury properties are taking a hit as well.
  • In the realm of today’s infrastructure that will be obsolete tomorrow, consider gas stations. We all envision a world of autonomous electric vehicles, so what happens to the gas stations? Likely they’ll be redeveloped and reclaimed by the city, or become electric charging stations, but in the meantime, how about art?
  • Consumer values are crossing geographic boundaries, as marketers are increasingly seeing similar tastes and preferences in demographic cohorts in a globalized world. I suppose this is something new for marketing, but in broader demographic analysis I always found it frustrating how these cohorts/categories are made. “Millennial” preferences really just refer to things young people do, and whether one is young (in terms of tastes and preferences) is increasingly more a product of one’s life stage than age. Single 35-year-olds share more in common with single 25 year-olds than coupled 35-year-olds, and the same applies in the other direction. Tastes and preferences are more influenced by major life events than people realize.
  • The Guardian took a brief look at the “future gazing industry” (that includes people like me) and how it’s grown in the recent past. I really enjoy the process of forecasting and the insights it brings. People mistakenly assume it’s some black-box calculator when in fact it’s just a way of doing research and synthesizing information, together with a healthy dose of probability analysis. Something to really appreciate about this work, though, is how a good forecast has less to do with fancy insights and mathemagic (of the sort pundits become famous for) but more for its ability to build consensus. There’s a lot to say, but I should save it for a separate post.
  • In light of the many measures the Province of Ontario is taking to cool the housing market here, some rather interesting measures are being proposed in California. The state, particularly the San Francisco Area, has seen housing prices skyrocket in the last several years. In the face of a major affordability crisis, homeowners are facing off against municipalities and those who have been priced-out of the market in a battle between maintaining character and increasing densities and housing supply (sound familiar?). This is an interesting echo of what is happening in the GTA, though Ontario is contemplating amending the OMB to give local communities more say, while California is contemplating a fast-track process for affordable housing developments that will circumvent the rezoning process.
  • Not content enough with selling books, electronics, knick-knacks and soon fresh produce, Amazon is allegedly moving into online residential real estate services. The page which tipped GeekWire off has been taken down, but it would be an interesting move at a time when the realtor industry is rapidly digitizing (from searching for properties online to doing property showings on Snapchat and Instagram).
  • More exciting news as Elon Musk tweeted that he has “verbal” approval to start digging a tunnel between New York and Washington D.C. Initial thoughts on it sound like a legitimate test for his tunnel boring project as well as the Hyperloop. I’ve been very skeptical that the Hyperloop really was anything more than a pipe dream, but Musk has accomplished some rather extraordinary things since he got into the transport business, so I’ll remain cautiously optimistic.