Amazon puts itself at the forefront of the next consumer revolution
INNOVATION TALK:AMAZON’S FOUNDER AND chief executive Jeff Bezos ranks as one of the most ambitious men in the technology business, gleefully disrupting one business after another.
Most obviously, the publishing world has been turned upside down with the rise of e-books, a technological shift that Bezos was instrumental in making possible with the revolutionary Kindle reader.
And that’s not the only old-media business that Bezos is determined to disrupt – the Seattle-based company recently announced that it is creating a digital-media development centre in London, ensuring they will be able to rival the likes of Netflix and Apple’s iTunes store by streaming content to customers.
In a related initiative, back in May, Amazon made tentative steps into the world of content creation with a scheme to solicit film and TV scripts. And with the Kindle Fire tablet, Bezos is even staking out a position as the future of mobile computing takes shape.
But it is distinctly possible that Bezos’ most significant disruption won’t be recorded in mounting quarterly losses posted by a rival retailer or media company. Instead, his legacy might be felt over the long term in the very shape of our cities.
The evolution of retail has seen many significant shifts over the generations, from discrete, specialised shops in urban centres to large department stores to even larger shopping malls and big-box retailers in the suburbs. There are many complex economic and social forces underpinning these transitions, of course, but each phase represented the triumph of successive retailing innovations, and it’s possible to characterise those innovations in one word – convenience.
The rise of the suburban mall began as a US phenomenon, and indeed is synonymous with US urban design, but it was an Austrian architect, Victor Gruen, who is credited with inventing it. In the early 1950s, he outlined his idea for a suburban retail centre in the Progressive Architecture journal, and oversaw the prototypical mall in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956. He gave his name to the so-called Gruen Effect, where consumers become disoriented by the confusing layout of a mall and become literally and figuratively lost in the shopping experience – a convenient metaphor for the narcotic effect of mass consumerism.
In designing the mall, Gruen also created what became one of the United States’ most significant “gifts” to the world – alongside Hollywood movies and pop music, it’s possible to see the mall, and the consumerism it serves, as one of the country’s great cultural exports.
The convenience that the mall and big-box retailers provided was a function of the increased dependence on the automobile – acres of parking space and peripheral locations meant the mall was a hell of a lot easier to negotiate than city-centre shopping for most suburbanites. For such customers, the mall offered not just an easier shopping experience, but came to represent a simulacrum of community.