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Facebook has coffee shops now. It's only the beginning of the branded city of the future


Free coffee, loaner bikes, and public events: These are some of the amenities that tech brands and banks offer at a new generation of retail spaces.

After facing years of privacy scandals, Facebook has announced plans to open a series of five "Facebook Cafes" across the U.K. by early September. There, you will be able to get a privacy checkup along with a free coffee, according to the Evening Standard. (I've reached out to Facebook for more details and will update this story if I hear back.)

The plan has been called a PR stunt, and it may be. But in the context of tech companies building a presence in cities, Facebook is late to the party. Pop-up stores, brand activations, and retail locations that also offer free events and other public-facing amenities have become a key component of  business playbooks in recent years, in part thanks to a glut of commercial real estate left behind by the retail apocalypse. That includes companies like Apple, Capitol One, and, yes, Facebook, all of which are seizing the opportunity to establish branded presences in neighborhoods—and potentially reshaping cities as we know them.

The aftermath of the retail apocalypse

Cities are still figuring out what to do in a post-Amazon world: The familiar retail shops that once filled our streets have been closing en masse for the last decade, and the bloodletting hasn't stopped. Last year, 5,824 stores closed in the U.S., and 7,062 have closed so far this year in what analysts believe could exceed 12,000 store closings through the end of 2019.

Yes, thousands of new stores are still opening each year, but it all adds up to sizable, ongoing net loss that you can see with your own eyes in cities and strip malls across the country. Vacant storefronts mean landlords drop rental prices and entertain short-term cash grabs rather than long-term leases, like those seasonal Halloween stores that are about to open everywhere again, only to disappear by November. Successful businesses moving into these open vacancies tend to be experiential in nature, offering necessary in-person services rather than commodities you could order more conveniently online. Case in point: Physical therapy centers are one of the hottest players in new-retail right now.

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