Going dark: The post-pandemic transformation of the metropolitan retail landscape

This 2020 viewpoint article discusses the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and consumer behaviour changes such as the rise in online shopping, on the retail landscape. The focus is on the emergence of what the authors term ‘dark stores’ to post-pandemic survival strategies – spaces not open to the public but instead functioning like fulfilment centres, where delivery ‘pickers’ would collate items for consumers from pre-paid online orders.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This 2020 viewpoint article discusses the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and consumer behaviour changes, such as the rise in online shopping and concerns over disease transmission, on the retail landscape. The article begins by detailing some of the historical changes seen in retail, dating from medieval marketplaces to the current internet age. It continues by providing insights on the growth in online shopping, which had been steadily rising before the crisis, but has been further exacerbated by Covid-19, due to perceptions that it is safer or more convenient than shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores. Due to these pressures, the authors suggest we will see a surge in ‘dark stores’ as a pandemic survival strategy, which may work better with retailers such as large supermarkets or retailers transitioning to an online-only model, and which they describe as (p.4):

Dark stores are not open to the public... Instead, dark stores are open only to delivery ‘pickers’ or proxy shoppers for services like Shipt, Postmates, Ocado or Instacart, who move through quickly to fill pre-placed digital orders. Operating like fulfilment centres, dark stores reduce the need for customer-facing elements – dedicated cashiers, customer service, elaborate lighting and decor, fancy displays, customer amenities, and point-of-sale information – and may be positioned to drive higher sales (and profitability) per square foot/ square meter compared to typical retail outlets.

The authors conclude the article by outlining the key impacts of the pandemic, and related potential changes such as dark stores, on high streets, including:

  • Visits to bricks-and-mortar stores will be done more out of necessity, with famous shopping streets and malls becoming less of a tourist destination.
  • Open-air markets and other forms of open air retail might become more popular.
  • Home deliveries via technologies like drones might come to market sooner than expected.
  • Big-box retail might be repurposed as dark stores and warehouses.
  • Vacant retail units could be repurposed for things like residential.