After facing years of privacy scandals, Facebook has announced plans to open a series of five “Facebook Cafes” across the U.K. by early September. There, you will be able to get a privacy checkup along with a free coffee, according to the Evening Standard. (I’ve reached out to Facebook for more details and will update this story if I hear back.)
The plan has been called a PR stunt, and it may be. But in the context of tech companies building a presence in cities, Facebook is late to the party. Pop-up stores, brand activations, and retail locations that also offer free events and other public-facing amenities have become a key component of business playbooks in recent years, in part thanks to a glut of commercial real estate left behind by the retail apocalypse. That includes companies like Apple, Capitol One, and, yes, Facebook, all of which are seizing the opportunity to establish branded presences in neighborhoods—and potentially reshaping cities as we know them.
The aftermath of the retail apocalypse
Cities are still figuring out what to do in a post-Amazon world: The familiar retail shops that once filled our streets have been closing en masse for the last decade, and the bloodletting hasn’t stopped. Last year, 5,824 stores closed in the U.S., and 7,062 have closed so far this year in what analysts believe could exceed 12,000 store closings through the end of 2019.
Yes, thousands of new stores are still opening each year, but it all adds up to sizable, ongoing net loss that you can see with your own eyes in cities and strip malls across the country. Vacant storefronts mean landlords drop rental prices and entertain short-term cash grabs rather than long-term leases, like those seasonal Halloween stores that are about to open everywhere again, only to disappear by November. Successful businesses moving into these open vacancies tend to be experiential in nature, offering necessary in-person services rather than commodities you could order more conveniently online. Case in point: Physical therapy centers are one of the hottest players in new-retail right now.
Over the past few years, an unlikely industry—banking—has been taking advantage of this shift. Many banks have experimented with locations in neighborhood storefronts, aiming to capture younger consumers with smaller, urban spaces. In some cases, these banks (like Wells Fargo) have focused on marketing new, automated tech at these locations, fitting them with ATM machines that can even provide you with a new debit card. But they’ve also tried to frame these storefront spaces as neighborhood-friendly, offering perks like free Wi-Fi and loaner bikes to customers. Capital One took this idea to the extreme with its Capital One Cafes in major cities across the U.S.
“It’s not just a bank. It’s a new banking state of mind,” the company’s tagline reads. The cafes are basically coffee shops where you’re free to loiter with banking services offered on top. Through a deal with Peets, Capital One offers 50% off your coffee drink of choice so long as you use your Capital One debit or credit card to buy it.
In other words, the banking industry wants to feel like your local cafe—and by extension, part of your neighborhood.
Silicon Valley shows up to Main Street
Not to be outdone, the tech industry is also building an offline footprint, seeking to reposition tech brands as friendly, accessible presences in cities and neighborhoods.
In 2017, Apple began to reframe its stores as what it described as “town squares“—a shift that seems to be rooted in little more than some stone steps where you are free to sit and a curriculum of workshops and speakers that are open to the public. But the execution is less important than the mentality behind it: A subtle shift in language repositions Apple stores as gathering places (and offers the brand the opportunity to inundate the public with its Apple-ness, of course). Meanwhile, Alphabet is venturing much further into placemaking in cities with its plans to develop Quayside, a new “smart neighborhood” in Toronto, which will include everything from housing and office space to public areas—all produced by the tech giant.
Which brings us full circle to the idea of a Facebook Cafe. Facebook, as a digital platform, is a brand built upon your friends. You may despise the casually lax privacy policies of Mark Zuckerberg, but you love all those puppy and baby pictures in your feed. And you’re biological predisposed to compare your life to those of other people, so you keep coming back. Facebook’s greatest strength is that it really has built the (digital) town square, however distorted that square has become through its algorithms.
Facebook may still be a popular destination, but it’s not a place. Beyond its poor privacy practices, dealing with Facebook’s opaque customer service is like shouting into a void. An offline cafe could be a clever PR move that sweetens public sentiment with honeyed lattes, sure, but it’s also the first manifestation of Facebook as a spot on the map, filled with a staff that you can actually talk to. It’s Facebook as a physical experience filled with fleshy people instead of digital ones. Like Apple, Amazon, and Google/Alphabet, Facebook wants to anchor its brand in the real world—a friendly local cafe where you can stop in for a coffee if you consent to a privacy checkup on your account.
As these brands become locations, not just digital platforms, they stand to have a profound impact on cities, transforming Main Street into the brick-and-mortar equivalent of your smartphone’s home screen. How, exactly, that will change the life of communities still remains to be seen. But our cities will never be the same for it.