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Long Good Buy

Learning to love the malling of Manhattan.

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In the nineties, as we all know, New Yorkers bought into Barnes & Noble (shopping as singles bar), grew dependent on the Gap (shopping as utilitarian hipsterism), and flirted with Kmart (shopping as suburban porn). But as the decade closes, a city packed with chains and superstores is entering its post-mall-rat phase -- and the repetition of stores is starting to look natural. The war is over, and we have both lost and won: Manhattan is now more than just one big shopping center; it's a decompression zone.

That's not a sci-fi term. In Why We Buy, the much-hyped marketing bible published this year, Paco Underhill -- the self-styled "retail anthropologist" who coined the "butt-brush" theory of wider shopping aisles -- uses this jargon to describe the dead space at the entrance of a store, where customers get their bearings. Such an idea might seem out of step in Manhattan, where cramped shops and narrow aisles, like talking taxis or Cats, are things to be tolerated. But now that so many stores are repeating themselves, the D-zone isn't in the store -- it's in the street.

At Astor Place, three different Starbucks storefronts now thrive within sight of one another. Banana Republics and Duane Reades multiply like rabbits to keep their market share. Superstores like the Costco price club and Home Depot are targeting the few remaining vacant sites and are about to breach Manhattan's moat. Repetition, in theory, gets the customer's attention. "The urban street is coming back," Underhill acknowledges from his Manhattan office. "The Gap isn't competing with Levi's. It's competing for the consumer's discretionary dollar. Every person that's walking down the street is a $100 bill that could be spent at Victoria's Secret, Barnes & Noble, or the Gap."

Over time, urbanism and Banana Republicism are actually intertwining: The Gap and Starbucks are like bodegas now, one on every corner. Rather than build one big destination, dozens of little mountains come to thousands of shopping Muhammads. "Very few people walk more than two blocks for a cup of coffee," explains Faith Hope Consolo, a real-estate consultant for Starbucks and other chains. "That's Starbucks's pro forma."

Aesthetes might groan that national chains make New York look like every other city. Yet generations ago, vast New York department stores created their own fake milieus. Superstore culture is after the same thing. "It doesn't look like a retail store," warns Costco chairman Jeff Brotman. "You have to pay $40 a year for membership. You'll get lower prices, but you'll have to do it in our style." In a city context, such suburban eccentricity makes Costco seem downright quaint.

Consultant Richard Seligman, who assembled sites for Calvin Klein and Ann Taylor, now proposes snazzing up retail with movie theaters and other "interactive" entertainment. "Perhaps the concept is not so new," he writes in a just-released marketing report. "It sounds a lot like the downtowns of yesteryear." By learning to love Banana Republic, aren't we embracing both our past and our destiny? Starbucks is Chock Full O' Nuts; Costco is Gimbel's . . .

Brotman laughs. "New Yorkers are so provincial," he says, "they think they invented everything." Underhill, though, mulls over the analogies before handing down a judgment. "Starbucks at this juncture is not a retailer," he says. "It is in the real-estate business."


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