Plenty of pundits in the business world have been throwing around the word “uberization”. Usually what they mean when they use it is, using technology to disrupt an industry by disassociating ownership of the asset with the service provided. Critics focus on the impact of a service like Uber on the driver, believing that whatever the service is, whether as a driver or an AirBnB room provider, workers are getting the short end of the stick.
Retail has made some attempts at gig work – which is not quite the same as the sharing economy. Amazon has had some success with shift work that is specific, repeatable, and relatively low skill: delivery driving. However, it has just as much backlash as Uber in terms of its reputation for treating workers, up to and including the lawsuit claiming the company builds its shifts so tightly that workers have no time to take breaks and effectively work for less than minimum wage. I’ve had Amazon Prime packages delivered to my doorstep by a driver flinging them out of his car window as he drove by.
I don’t want to minimize the discussion about the impact of these sharing economy services – on workers, on the streets or neighborhoods where these activities are taking place. There is still a lot that society doesn’t really know about the long-term effects of the sharing economy. But that’s not the sharing economy. What is central to the sharing economy is an under-utilized asset. Your car. Your extra bedroom. Uber recognized the locked-up, “parked” value of car ownership – that there are plenty of people who need rides, and plenty of people who have space in their cars, and if technology could connect those two more seamlessly, then Uber could slice off a share that came from unlocking that value.
Shift work is more of a gray area, where I guess you could argue that the under-utilized asset is the person, but retailers aren’t big fans of shift work outside of those relatively low skill applications. If you’re going to show up and sell Echoes in Amazon’s mall kiosks, you kind of have to know something about what the Echo can do and how it works. To be a delivery driver, you don’t have to know anything about the products you’re delivering.
In retail, the asset is actually the retail store – the physical location. The analogy to AirBnB is actually quite high. Think about how traditional leases worked in retail. Once upon a time, you chose a location for a store and then you tried to lock in the longest lease you could possibly get. Retailers may have done that out of a desire to secure the best rental price and insure themselves against fluctuating – or just plain rising – property values. But the practice did nothing to protect them against shifting demographics, or things like flight to the suburbs, or urban renewal, or demand for mixed-use living. And so leases have gone from 99 years to 50 to 25 to five.
And now we’re seeing the ultimate in location flexibility – the pop-up store.
Pop-ups used to be the venue of stunts – like when Charmin sets up its pop-up bathrooms for New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It isn’t even necessarily about selling something as it is getting great PR and some brand love. This type of pop-up isn’t going to go away. But where it used to be the main type of retail pop-up, way down in the depths of guerilla marketing, it is no longer the only type out there.