Businesses For Downtown

Slate’s Farhad Manjoo recently wrote about the kinds of business entrepreneurs might consider starting if they want to survive the internet. His overall point is that some things are better done in person than online:

Many times we want products or services that involve intimate human contact, the sort of personal touch that can’t be translated over digital lines.

Though Manjoo is exploring the fundamental and irreversible shift the internet has caused in retail, his advice just as easily serves as a guideline for what types of businesses might survive longterm in a place like downtown Provo.

Manjoo points out that if there is a way to make the internet do something, it has either been done or will be eventually. The result is that businesses looking to survive in today’s world need to offer human contact:

There are lots of things the Web does very well, and every year, it gets better. If you build a business that merely replicates one of the Web’s strong suits—selling books or music, making travel arrangements, that kind of thing—you’re obviously gonna be toast.  But the Web has blind spots—services it doesn’t reliably perform well now, and services it won’t ever be able to reliably perform well.

Manjoo goes on to point out that even custom clothing can be done better online than in person, which suggests that perhaps nothing is truly safe.  But he also cites Apple as a company that has made retail viable. Manjoo then mentions several other retaileras and notes that they have something in common:

They’re all what retailers call “high touch”—they prize rich, personalized customer service. And they all cater to wealthy people. They bank on the fact that there’s a moneyed segment of the population that’s willing to pay for a qualitatively better experience.

Downtown Provo isn’t currently a wealthy enclave, but the end goal still applies: the area needs businesses that offer personalized, “high touch” experiences. That’s why restaurants and venues are thriving in the area; they offer an experience that simply can’t be replicated online.

It can be tough to identify other internet-proof — or “blind-spot” improving — businesses models. But the more people and creativity that concentrate in an area, the more ideas they’ll generate. Moreover, Manjoo’s observations at least offer advice on what sorts of businesses city leaders shouldn’t spend time pursuing. And as much as I’d like to see the area filled with the quaint shops of yesteryear, they’re just not coming back.

Downtown Provo needs retail businesses that offer something the internet can’t replicate.

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Filed under Development, Downtown, economics

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