January 26, 2011
Q&A with Ray Oldenburg, author and professor emeritus of sociology
Former sociology professor Ray Oldenburg is the author of two books about the “third place,” The Great Good Place (Marlowe & Company, 1989) and Celebrating the Third Place (2001). He defines the third place as a public place where people can gather to put aside the concerns of home (the first place) and work (the second place)—a place to connect with others and exchange ideas. From his home in Pensacola, Fla., Oldenburg spoke with us about what he sees happening in the retail sector as it works to create third place experiences. We learned why virtual connections don’t count as third place experiences, the potential value of third place connections and what makes his local Publix supermarket a great good place.
You first wrote about the idea of the third place 20 years ago. Has your definition of what a third place is changed since then?
Not really. I have objected to the common idea these days that there can be virtual third places, that you can do it electronically. There is no comparison, in my mind, between the joys of getting together, of the face-to-face enjoyment and banter. You can’t really compare that with electronic [social networking].
We have evolved to a place where people are interacting with screens as much as with other people. So does this make the idea of a physical third place even more necessary?
In public places, you get a mix built right in, because people with different mind-sets, different politics and so on share that space, and they discover one another, and they get along. The problem with so-called virtual third places is that you get like-minded people attracting each other.
So even with the growth of social networking, people are still looking for reasons to come together in physical spaces?
Yes. The problem is, we have a high rate of mobility. We move from one locale to another, and for most people it’s from one suburban development to another, and there’s no gathering place, no place to welcome you into and get to know all your neighbors in a suburb. As I once said, if we left urban planning to General Motors, by gosh, we’d have pretty much what we have right now. It’s a lot of consumption and a lot of loneliness.
Have there been retail spaces that worked as third places?
We had the general store, which was also a gathering place. In the center of it you typically had the potbellied stove, and there’d be seats around that and people would come in and visit there. The best combination of retail and third place that we ever had was the soda fountain. In 1900 there were about 110,000 of them in the United States, and by 1980 we were down to 150, because the bean counters figured out you can make more money selling greeting cards in that space. The great thing about the soda fountain was that it maximized what I call the mix, which is sort of what’s missing in our society these days—the mixing of different kinds of people, all ages, both sexes. Everybody enjoyed that soda fountain.
You’re talking about smaller, independent shops. Today we’re seeing mass retailers creating spaces where people can gather, places where people go to not necessarily buy something but to interact. It’s a more deliberate attempt to create something that used to happen more naturally. Does this make it any less authentic of an experience?
Well, Barnes & Noble always has a goodly number of customers. By definition, it may not be a real third place. I mean, you don’t have a lot of people talking to one another. They are sitting in comfortable chairs, eating their treats. But it is a place to go. It’s a place a lot of people go. I see familiar faces in there. I think there are people that make it a hangout.
Is it less authentic? Maybe not. What’s attractive about a place is vitality. And how do you get that? Well, you get people to come. So that becomes the first challenge. The second is to ask: What about a place, other than the goods you’re selling, might make it attractive? In one of Ron Sher’s retail developments, called Crossroads, there was a concourse that didn’t get a lot of traffic. He paid $12,000 for a miniature merry-go-round. He put chairs around it so the mothers of small children could sit there, and it nets $16,000 a year from the quarters the mothers put in.
He went so far as to get a mini police station at Crossroads and a branch of the library, and so there’s many reasons now to go to that shopping development, quite apart from shopping.
So it’s less about buying and more about just coming for the experience?
Yes. I think the typical American consumer is always looking for a friendly place. You know, we’re deprived.
There are places where the town square is created or improved or whatever and remains vacant, because the big shift in American society was the home became the center of entertainment. When I was a kid, the home was not a center of entertainment. You got out of the house to be entertained. Now, families got smaller and their houses got bigger, and you’ve brought in everything you could think of. People have little theaters in their home with giant TV screens, and they’re used to being entertained in the home.
Are there any retailing experiences you particularly enjoy?
Well, I enjoy going to my local Publix supermarket. They have a chef, and I’ve met the chef, and I enjoy talking to her. And everybody’s very helpful. They have real meat. They have men who cut meat. It’s wonderful. You can speak to them. For example, they will have beef shanks displayed, but they’re too short. I’ve spoken with the butcher to ask about cutting some longer ones, and they will cut them and bring them to me.
So this is a place where you go to get quality merchandise but also get personalized service?
It’s kind of a weird feeling. It’s like being in the old small-town butcher shop, you know. It’s charming, I must say.
You’ve written that what attracts the regular visitor is supplied not by management but by other customers. Have retailers co-opted this? They’re supplying the interaction in many cases, and just like your experience at Publix, it seems like the retailer has replaced the friend. Does this make it any less of a third place?
Ideally, of course, the third place has regulars. But short of that—take this example: Suppose I go to another city and I don’t know anyone, and I want to have a drink. I can walk into a bar, as I have, and the bartender might be down at the end of the bar talking to a couple buddies and paying no attention to me. What I do is spin around, get out of there and find a place where the guy behind the bar is friendly, and then I have my beer. So, while not achieving the ideal typical model of the third place, it’s certainly preferable to the one where the help or the host just doesn’t seem to care.
Is there something retailers should be doing to create a better third-place experience for shoppers?
One thing that increasingly they’re doing is being very accommodating to customers. This business of “Let me drop what I’m doing and help you,” that hasn’t always been there in our stores. But it is now.
Do you think there’s more of a need for third places now than 20 years ago, when you first started writing about this?
Right now, given the level of unemployment, the idea of “weak ties” is very important.
What are weak ties?
The sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote about this idea, called “The Strength of Weak Ties.” What he found was that when people lost their jobs, talking to their close circle of friends didn’t get them anywhere, but people that they kind of knew, in a looser sense, were typically more helpful in finding a job than the people they associated with every day. And of course, most of the people who regularly get together at third places, you would call those weak ties. Strong ties are your co-workers, your relatives, your family. And anything beyond that pretty much qualifies as a weak tie.
Is there one thing happening in retailing that is a positive way in which retailers are becoming a third place?
Well, as we’ve discussed, your general treatment when you go in is much better than it was, say, 20 years ago. Beyond that, I think the trick for retailers is to find some reason for a customer to come in other than the goods they have to offer for sale.