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Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson predicted the future of retail: Less stuff, plenty of food and coding

WildFang retail manager Amy Hjorth, pictured in the downtown store Lisa Bauso WildFang retail manager Amy Hjorth, pictured in the downtown store

Neal Stephenson is a prescient guy. In Snow Crash, his hugely popular novel published in 1992, the Seattle cyberfiction writer described an America of the future that excelled at four things: coding, music, movies and high-speed delivery pizza. 

Twenty-five years later, Stephenson’s list is as good a summary as any of the changes roiling America’s retail landscape. Once bastions of stuff, stores today are less about inventory than food, experience and technology.

Just last month Nordstrom opened its first showroom store — a 3,000-square-foot venue that doesn’t have actual clothes. Here’s what the store does offer: Stylists who will order merchandise for customers, a juice and coffee bar (food), and tailoring and manicure services (experience.) Shoppers can also buy clothes online (coding).

Local retail venues are also looking beyond stuff, mostly by adding food and drink to their sales lineup.  We visited five businesses in Portland and asked them why they decided to incorporate a bar or café into their location.

Here are their responses, with apologies to Neal. The world of brick and mortar retail has devolved into two things:  Food and coding.

1. VeloCult Bike Shop

Velocult2Sky Boyer, owner, Velo Cult      Photo | Lisa Bauso

Owner Sky Boyer relocated to Portland from San Diego because he wanted to live in Portland. “I could only find this 10,000 square foot space, and I knew I couldn’t pay the rent just selling bikes. And we wanted a community space seven days a week,” he says. “By getting a beer license I could offer and charge for drinks, and have a community space."

The bar isn’t a gimmick, Boyer says. "We say we are equal parts craft beer bar/cafe, community event venue and bike shop and never have one dominate over the other. Honestly, it's the only way we can have a nonprofit use the space without charging venue fees and still at least break even.”

Click audio below to hear Boyer talk about bikes and bars:

2. WildFang

Wildfang1Amy Hjorth, retail manager, WildFang     Photo | Lisa Bauso

When the "feminist style" fashion line built the downtown store two years ago, the goal was to create a "dual concept” venue, says WildFang retail manager Amy Hjorth.

"We had seen a lot of coffee concepts but not a bar," she says. "It's really part of our culture; we love to throw a party, and we love to have people hang out and have a drink, maybe while the other person is shopping. We have partnerships with local brands like Ten Barrel and Union Wine to make beverages exclusive for us, so it's a great way to engage further with our customers." 

Click audio below to hear Hjorth talk about the WildFang bar: 

3. Cosube Surf

Cosube7Alex Morris, owner, Cosube Surf     Photo | Lisa Bauso

Owner Alex Morris says the coffee bar helps to create a community and atmosphere that is impossible to replicate online. "Retail is something that is really hard by itself, and we had a mission from the beginning to incorporate cool, on trend, high fashion surf brands into Portland," Morris says.

The challenge, he says, is getting customers to stop by the shop more than once a month.

"Maybe you don't want to come to see a new sweater weekly, but you want to have a latte a few times a week. Here you can meet other surfers, see new clothing, socialize, come for our happy hour or to check out the event — check out our shaping bay where the surfers make surfboards. With the cafe you have a reason to come in and socialize."

Click audio below to here Morris talk about the coffee bar: 

4. Music Millienium

MusicMilleniumTerry Currier, owner, Music Millenium, pictured behind the counter of what will be converted into the bar area in the store    Photo | Lisa Bauso

The iconic music shop launched a kickstarter four years ago to fix the roof and add a café. The cost of the roof exceeded the bid, so the bar was put on hold. Four years later, the shop has mustered the funds and started work on the cafe.

“The premier thing for this is to give the customers a better retail shopping experience,“ says owner Terry Currier. “Customers shop a bit and then feel like having a drink and leave to get a beverage. Also, with all our in-store events we are now able to offer beverages. It gets hot during those events."

Currier says he doesn't expect the bar to do big business.  "We will continue to be a record store with additional services to make the customer experience more enjoyable while shopping."

Click audio below to hear Currier talk about the new bar:

5. Powell's Books

Powells4Miriam Sontz, CEO, Powell's Books     Photo | Lisa Bauso

Bookstores arguably pioneered the cafe-retail trend.

"We opened our first coffee shop in the 1980’s with Anne Hughes in response to our customers and the neighborhood environment," says Powell's CEO Miriam Sontz.

"There was not much around our store then, and what we discovered is that what customers want is to walk around, collect five or six books and sit down to sip or munch on something while they look at those books. We have partnered with World Cup for 15 years, and it has been a mutually pleasurable and profitable partnership.”

Click audio below to hear Sontz talk about coffee and books: 

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