According to the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, the US has significantly more retail space per person than any other country. While the world as a whole has about 4 square feet of retail space per person, the US has 31 square feet of retail space per person. The US accounts for only 4.5% of the world’s population, yet is home to 39% of the world’s retail square footage.
"Of course," you may be thinking, "the US has so much retail square footage per person because it has such a high GDP per capita relative to other countries." This fact is likely to only be part of the reason for such high rates of retail area in the US. When plotting GDP per capita against retail square footage per capita it can be seen that the US is again a statistical outlier by a longshot. Countries that have GDPs per capita similar to the US (e.g. Singapore, Switzerland, and the Netherlands) still have far fewer square feet of retail per capita than the US.
The Guide to Shopping speculates that the dominance of retail space on the US’s built environment is a reflection of “the unfettered growth and acceptance of the market economy.” Perhaps…
In any case, the preponderance of retail in the US raises several questions:
- The spread of retail over the US can’t be attributed just to the rise of massive suburban shopping malls. Retail has managed to find its way into places where retail would not traditionally be expected: train stations, museums, public spaces, airports (and even airplanes themselves!). Where will retail spread to next? Are there any suitable frontiers left for retail to squeeze its way into?
- With such high rates of retail, have we reached a saturation point?
- Will the growth of internet-based sales lead to the decline of shopping centers (maybe it already has)? If so, what should be done with the existing built environments that have been tailored for retail?
- What options outside of retail are available to developers who want the vitality that comes with retail and mixed-use developments?
- Are such high levels of retail square footage economically sustainable in the long run?
- Will the rest of the world trend towards the American rates of retail square footage?
At this point, one thing is certain: high rates of retail square footage has had a tremendous effect on the US’s built environment. How future trends in retail will change the built environment in the future remains to be seen.