My Turn/Al Norman: Retail virtual reality on the French King


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Twelve years ago, a very wealthy developer from Connecticut started poking holes in the ground on the northwest tip of the French King Highway, and began preparing an Environmental Notification Form for state review. This developer probably had no idea that his big box plans for the French King would take more than a decade to process — including six years of litigation right up to the state’s highest court.

But in that span of time, the longest big box battle in America, the whole world of retailing has changed.

Malls across America are going dark. Brick and mortar stores are closing. Wall Street analysts are stating the obvious: we have a glut of retail stores. Even Walmart, which in the 1990s was producing as many as 250 superstores per year, is now forecasting that it will build only 15 new stores this coming year. Instead, it is pivoting to spend billions of dollars to up its shopping game on the internet.

This month, Walmart shuttered 63 of its Sam’s Clubs, affecting 11,025 workers.

Walmart spent more than $3 billion to buy jet.com and hire one of its founders, Marc Lore. Now the CEO of Walmart.com, Lore recently described in an interview the future of retailing. He depicted big box stores as a “very fixed and rigid way” to get products to people, and added:

“In 10 years, you’ll be able to put on a pair of glasses and be immersed into experiences that display products in their native environment. So you can just put on the glasses and say, ‘I’m interested in going camping’ and be transported to a campsite and be able to walk the site. They’re doing holograms now inside of VR that are super real. The quality of the imagery and the experience would blow people’s minds…”

If we’re streaming towards virtual reality shopping, using glasses and holograms, then it’s time for us in Greenfield to think about what a VR future means. Any store built today needs to take into account what shopping trends will look like a decade from now. Walmart has 4,600 stores in the U.S. and boasts that 90 percent of the American population is within 10 minutes of one of their stores. The Ice Age for big box stores has already begun. These huge dinosaurs will feel the climate change in the retail industry. The store of the future will be virtual. Walmart’s e-commerce expert predicts we will shop inside holograms. Based on patents already filed by Amazon and Walmart, drones will drop products at our front door, and return again to floating dirigible warehouses for more merchandise. Existing superstore buildings will become “fulfillment centers” with no large parking lots for cars.

There is still time to re-imagine the French King. While it’s still unclear what Ceruzzi’s plans are for the French King site, a real estate sign recently advertised the land as being as “available.”

The land that the big box developer covets was once zoned industrial. It could be used for production of tech products of the future. It could be used for an ecommerce fulfillment center. It could even be used for a public safety complex, or other municipal purposes. But its usefulness as a big box dinosaur is gone.

This spring, the French King big box lawsuit will reach the Franklin Superior Court. Now is the opportunity for the mayor and City Council leaders to meet with the Connecticut developer, and talk about alternatives outside of the box. Walmart first came to Greenfield in 1992 — 26 years ago. Our city looks much the same as did in 1992—but the retail landscape has altered dramatically. It’s time for our leaders to move forward, too, and find a use for the French King that is not an Ice Age relic the day it opens.

As Marc Lore suggests, it’s time to “blow people’s minds.”

Al Norman has been a Greenfield resident for almost 40 years. He is the founder of Sprawl-Busters.