Don't make the mistake of thinking that cyberspace marketplaces are all about mathematical whiz kids furiously trading esoteric derivatives, though. Even something as prosaic as the kitchen sink can now be offered and purchased electronically. When Matsushita opened a new-for-the-nineties kitchen showroom in Shinjuku, it was advertised as "the only place in the world where a person can walk in off the street and experience a high-tech Virtual Reality system in a consumer application." 50 You could strap on a headset and a data glove to inspect the appliances on offer. Actually, it didn't work very well; the crude visual simulations approximated a condition of legal blindness, the gesture sensors recognized only a few simple hand and finger movements, and the heavy apparatus made your neck hurt. But by keeping the show and eliminating the room, it did save lots of very expensive Tokyo real estate.
It was only a transitional step. Once the traditional product showroom has been virtualized-replaced by a set of computer simulations -it can potentially be entered and explored from anywhere. (Elaborate virtual reality interfaces are probably unnecessary; on-command video clips of clothing being modeled, or viewer-controlled video cameras that can be used to inspect products remotely, can probably suffice to create effective virtual showrooms.) When there is enough network bandwidth, and when adequate display devices are sufficiently inexpensive and widespread, Shinjuku rents become irrelevant. The electronic mall becomes the digital successor to the Sears catalogue and the home shopping shows on cable television.
"Going shopping" now means something new. 51 Traditionally, it suggested a trip to market-contact with the historic urban center, a chance to mingle with fellow citizens. Market squares and market days were important spatial and temporal markers. The interface between stall or shop and public place was highly standardized; fronts were either left open to show the goods inside or (from the later seventeenth century) took the form of glazed display windows. 52 Groups of shops might be unified architecturally to yield grander urban elements, as in Giuseppe Mengoni's Milan Galleria. Alternatively, as the opening of the Bon Marché in Paris demonstrated in 1852, a multitude of departments might be combined in a single, great, vertically stacked store-a downtown place to which crowds of shoppers would swarm by train, tram, or bus. 53 More recently, these patterns have largely been displaced by the newer ones of driving to the suburban shopping mall or to the megawarehouse on the fringes of town. 54 But the electronic mall simply short-circuits the trip to a concentration of goods and displays, and replaces the glazed display window facing the street with windows on a computer screen.
Salesperson, customer, and product supplier no longer have to be brought together in the same spot; they just have to establish electronic contact. This idea was successfully pioneered in the phone-order computer business; the "stores" run by companies like Dell consist of toll-free telephone lines or computer network connections, warehouses located conveniently to transportation hubs, and United Parcel Service trucks equipped with wireless computers. A geographically distributed, electronically supported consumer transaction system completely replaces the traditional retail floor.
Even where familiar-looking retail stores remain, they are fast transmuting into computer-intensive network nodes. Bar code scanners at supermarket checkouts, terminals for credit card transactions, and wireless computers at rental car returns are the obvious first steps, but the close coupling of retail space to cyberspace can go far beyond that. Since the 1980s the retail chains Wal-Mart and Kmart have been using VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite systems to link widely scattered stores, delivery trucks, and warehouses into sophisticated computer systems for just-in-time inventory control, price updates, credit card authorization, and videoconferencing. 55 The same systems potentially allow on-shelf LED (light-emitting diode) displays of prices to be changed in all stores in a matter of seconds. Hand-held, wireless, inventory-tracking computers allow store assistants to check stock levels and prices and place orders without leaving the sales floor, and hand-held wireless sales terminals (much like electronic clipboards) are replacing fixed point-of-sale terminals in some stores. 56 Kmart's ShopperTrak system uses infrared sensors to track where the customers are in the store, to dispatch salespeople and open up checkout lanes when they are needed, and to provide information for setting advertising and display strategies. 57
Increasingly though, merchants will find that they can dispense with sales floors and sales staff altogether and just maintain servers with databases of product specifications, prices, availability information, images, and simulations. The phone-order business becomes the network-order business. This arrangement potentially cuts overhead, taps into bigger markets, and lends itself to further automation at many levels. Product information can be adjusted instantly as supplies and prices change. Consumers might either "window shop" by remotely accessing such virtual stores, or they might delegate the task to software shopping agents that go out on the Net with shopping lists, inspect the specifications and prices of the merchandise on offer, and return with reports on the best available matches and prices. Closure of a sale can immediately trigger a delivery order at a warehouse, update an inventory database, and initiate an electronic money transfer. So, as the Internet has opened up to commercial use, as commercial online services have grown, and as switched video networks have emerged, schemes for cybershopping have proliferated. Consider some snapshots of pioneering entrepreneurial efforts, circa early 1990s.
Groceries. Plans announced for Time Warner's pilot Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida, include access to an interactive menu of 20,000 products from an online supermarket and 7,500 from a drugstore. 58 In these virtual stores, the act of shopping is scaled down to pointing and clicking; the shopper moves along "shelves" on which realistically rendered packages are displayed, drags items to a "cart," and eventually pays with a credit card. [ ]The order is then delivered at a prearranged time.
Automobiles. Contemplate Automall, another service announced for Time Warner's Orlando network. The idea is that viewers will interactively browse through selections of cars and trucks, configure the options, then ask a salesperson to bring a vehicle out to the house for a test drive.
Computers. At the bargain-basement, low-margin end of the computer business, the Internet Shopping Network went online in 1994 with a World Wide Web "storefront" and product catalogue accessed through Mosaic. When a customer selects a catalogue item, the system automatically verifies the customer's credit, scans the current inventory lists of suppliers, selects the lowest-cost combination of distributor, warehouse, and delivery service, and places the order. Delivery is by express package service. "When a customer pushes that button," the proprietor announced, "he's causing a product to be spit out the back of a warehouse with his name onit." 59
Pizza. 60 Interactive television will replace the telephone. You enter a virtual pizza parlor and see a menu of available toppings. As you choose, a displayed pizza is modified accordingly and the price is tallied. When you are satisfied, the nearest pizzeria is notified and the order speeds to your door.
Clothing. Imagine a virtual clothing boutique. The catalogue is a large collection of video clips showing models wearing the items on offer; these clips can be accessed randomly from your home television set. (The president of Time Warner has commented: "We're talking about a fundamental shift in advertising.... You can bring the showroom to your house and take a 15-minute walk through it.") 61 Your detailed measurements are stored in a database somewhere. There is no inventory; when you place an order, computer-controlled machinery accesses these measurements and fabricates the item perfectly to your size. (Fitting rooms become unnecessary, and your size is never out of stock.) It is then delivered to your door.
With such soft shops, specialized retail districts and the departments that make up department stores simply become directory categories -logical groupings presented as menu items, icons, or virtual "storefronts" in the interfaces of online services. Retail location becomes a matter of being in the right directories. As with the old telephone Yellow Pages, customers let their fingers (or rather now, their cursors) do the walking. The stock is bigger and the selection larger than in the mightiest big-box off-ramp superstore. The things that remain in physical form are warehouses (which may become smaller as computerized inventory-control strategies become more sophisticated) and delivery vehicles.
From Kmart to Cybermart! Sic transit retail space? 62