Building ‘Third Places’: The Hidden Obligation of Retail Design

What is a “third place”? The term was first mentioned by the sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s and it refers to a physical location other than work or home, a place of community fit for social interaction.   A ‘Third place’ can be anything from public parks, farmers’ markets, community centers to coffee shops, diners, or canteens.

Although the term was launched more than thirty years ago it became popular again after the pandemic. During the pandemic people were forced to stay home, away from public or private retail spaces. Social distancing highlighted the importance of everyday social interactions. This realization triggered a mindset switch within the retail design field. Store owners started prioritizing community building, reinventing the way in which retail stores operated within a city.

Unlocking New Retail Urban Tactics

The ‘water cooler effect’

With customer experience becoming the epicenter of retail design, brands started prioritizing socializing over merchandising within their stores. The design philosophy shifted towards personalized in-store interactions, where “Experience Hubs” became the protagonists of the retail space. These hubs marked the new “spots” for spontaneous conversations, organically fostering social and community bonds within the stores.

The ‘hybrid space initiative’

Today, mixed-use stores have become the latest entrepreneurial move. Coffee-shops that sell t-shirts and furniture stores with in-house restaurants have become retail destinations, providing unexpecting offerings and prolonged retail experiences. In addition, during the pandemic, governments and retailers were forced to collaborate in order to fully utilize public open spaces. Suddenly, squares and sidewalks became outdoor store extensions, creating a hybrid retail model that effectively modified the urban footprint of post-pandemic cities.

The ‘twenty-minute neighborhood concept’

Primarily a European concept, the twenty-minute neighborhood becomes an assembly of retail facilities that compliment residential districts and are accessible via a twenty-minute walk. This retail urban tactic has restructured the suburb model, bringing everything in proximity and creating a series of micro-communities primed for social relationships.

The ‘third place’ is essentially a philosophy and an organization of culture. It is a place that is constantly changing to respond to the needs of modern society, oscillating between the public and private domain. Similarly, the ‘private retail store’ has become an indistinguishable part of public city life. These latest strategies provide a fresh insight towards the creation of a new version of the ‘third place’, revealing the hidden opportunities within the realm of retail design.

Flexus has over 30 years of experience in store concept implementation for small and large clients, with a track record of more than 1.000 stores.

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