Retail's responsibility to cultivate a ‘third place’

Organizations with physical spaces, and the people who manage them, are not only qualified to cultivate a third place in their spaces, but 75 percent of their visitors expect it.

What is your space for?

That’s the main question guiding much of what we do. People who manage large and/or multiple spaces are increasingly seeking responsive data visualization and analysis tools to make more informed decisions about engaging their customers. Our second but equally important question:

What could your space be for?

We’re asking you these questions not just because we believe every space serves a uniquely interesting purpose, but because your customers want you to know the answer.

75 percent of us expect brands to make more of a contribution to our wellbeing and quality of life, yet only 40 percent believe brands are doing so. And most of us would not care if 74 percent of brands disappeared. (Meaningful Brands)

We expect brands to contribute to the quality of our lives. This wellbeing we hope for is defined as “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous” — which is a lot to deliver. Successful brands understand this and position their products accordingly: Apple’s home speaker isn’t just more noise, it’s a chance to expand your happiness; Macy’s knows its women’s suits aren’t just clothes, they’re uniforms for prosperity.

Is your space designed for wellbeing and quality of life? Is the way you staff, manage and market your space in line with this expectation? Do your customers care whether or not you disappear?

There’s a term that touches on this expectation of wellbeing. American sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” for informal, neutral, public gathering places that are not only byproducts of, but essential to, community and public life.

“Think of it as the communal water-cooler effect. These places are not just areas of interpersonal interaction, but spaces where we feel a shared sense of purpose.” (Curbed)

Since publishing his book The Great Good Place in 1989, the term has been adopted by national retailers as widely as naming the term in their operating policy. Yet Oldenburg’s intention was never to craft a retailer’s best practices guide — in fact, when asked what surprised him most about third places in the past 25 years, Oldenburg responded, “[...]that the business world picked up on them,” and that it’s led to a more flexible and creative attitude toward workplaces as a result.

Despite Oldenburg’s surprise, our assertion is this: Retailers are creative placemakers by nature. They’re artists. Organizations with physical spaces, and the people who manage them, are not only qualified to cultivate a third place in their spaces, but 75 percent of their visitors expect it.

When we think about that percentage, here’s what should be considered according to Adobe’s

“We are talking about that total experience people have of a brand, which comes from a deep-rooted perception and feeling for it. It is from this internal place that they make their decisions on whether to visit, buy into, or advocate. It is the most powerful connection a brand can hope for, the one that goes beyond words and creates repeated, positive actions. It is something that needs to be nurtured continuously to keep the connection alive and well.” (

How to implement true third place ideals in retail

Inspired by the desire to create that powerful connection, here are a few suggestions for making your stores third place:

  • Have a diverse enough pricing range that allows anyone from any socioeconomic background to engage with your space (e.g., if you mainly sell $550 watches like Shinola, sell cups of coffee in your stores, too)

  • Host a wide range of events to engage as many visitors as possible. Fitness apparel retailer Outdoor Voices offers running groups, hip hop exercise classes and scavenger hunts, engaging different types of workout personalities (plus, almost all of them are free)

  • Design your space in a way that encourages slowing down and staying a while. Clean bathrooms accessible to any visitors, a bar with snacks or drinks, and a comfortable seating area communicate a welcoming environment to everyone, not just paying customers

  • Consider how your space is used and occupied when making plans for future changes and experiments. What data do you need to get the full story of your space? How many people are in your space at any given time and what external or internal factors are driving that traffic?

These blended, welcoming spaces for shopping and relaxing — like West Elm, Casper’s cozy Dreamery, and this store that’s literally called Relationships — are creating the new standard for what a retail store can be.

Ro Fainstein of human behavior firm Magid writes that they're seeing this blending of retail into common spaces: “We anticipate that many traditional retailers will test similar concepts. An important first step in this process is for retailers to first understand the core need their concept will address versus creating an experience just for the sake of an experience.”

Understand the core need the concept will address.

Know what the space is for.

Then design and operate from there.

Ready to manage your spaces better with richer occupancy and utilization data? Get in touch.

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