Retail Returns with Third Placemaking


Starting with the obvious: the revolution of ecommerce and digital shopping has changed the way retailers must operate to survive. At Charlotte’s annual ICSC, panelists and attendees raved about the importance of speed, technology integrations, and reducing friction in their buying process. (Friction meaning anything that may get in the way of a customer completing a purchase.) One retail panelist spoke about how parking can have a major influence on whether someone even makes it into his wine shop, to make a purchase. His solution was offering mobile ordering and curb-side pickup.

As the internet offers more pricing transparency and convenience, retailers will have to streamline their shopping experiences, and industry leaders are noticing the trend. In this blog post from last week, we discuss how retail experts are calling for a zero-click (zero-friction) model, in which an algorithm knows what you want, when you want it, and already has it waiting at your door when you get home. Amazon and other large e-tailers are certainly proponents of the zero-click future. However, we will reach a precipice at which, the shopping experience will be so efficient, recreation will have all but disappeared from retail.

This is where third placemaking becomes significant. Before we discuss the implications of third placemaking, it’s important to have an understanding about the third place and placemaking theories.

The Third Place

The third place is a marketing theory that suggests people spend most of their time in three places. The first, and obviously the most frequented is your home. The second, is your work or office. The third place is something else altogether.

Third place is less a location, and more like a community destination. Of course, it usually manifests in a physical space, but the theory touches more on the feeling of the place, and the community it creates. A great example of the third place can be found in the famous 90’s sitcom, Cheers. The bar in which the entire show took place, has all the elements that are important in developing a third place including: food and drink, highly accessible, involves regulars who habitually congregate there, welcoming and comfortable, and both new and old friends may be found there.

It’s important to note that third place does not have to be a physical place, rather a spiritual, emotional, and mental space.


Contrary to third place, placemaking is very much about the physical layout and design of a space. A quality place will be safe, connected, welcoming, and allow for authentic experiences. However, there are additional elements that go into developing these kinds of spaces. The architecture and design of a space requires proper physical form, mix of land uses and functions, and social opportunity. Simply, the physical space brings people physically together. Sustainable placemaking incorporates a strong sense of place rooted in human scale form that attracts activity and talented workers and contributes to regional economic prosperity.

How do they fit together?

When frictionless shopping hits the mainstream, big box e-tailers will dominate the retail market. That doesn’t mean that the small or local retailers will be left behind, but it will require an evolution of thought, and a major differentiation point.

Third Placemaking will be the paradigm by which retail and community become synonymous.

To counteract the soul-less, choice-less future of retail, small shops will fall to third placemaking to develop desirable friction, aimed at keeping people around their stores longer, without feeling stuck. That’s a pretty tall order, considering retail’s transactional business model. So, landlords and developers will shift how they’re constructing retail spaces. Instead of incorporating more parking lots, drive-thrus and digital integrations, they’ll utilize physical space to foster community, and develop a new buyer’s journey, that doesn’t feel like shopping at all.