(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The interwebs are full of predictions of doom for Big Box retail- Amazon continues to surge, Macy’s and Sears closing stores, etc. What the Sears catalog had been to rural general stores, so to is Amazon to retailers of today.
Now Big Box may strike back by finding its online footing and value in their physical locations, and thus news of its death may be greatly exaggerated. But then again, maybe not. Free two-day delivery was impressive, but two-hour delivery is tough to beat. Fasten your seat belt because this ride is going to get very turbulent.
Let’s assume for a moment that Big Box retail continues to flounder as more and more Americans discover the delights of e-commerce. What becomes of all of that real estate?
A recent New Yorker article on new agricultural techniques suggests one possibility: vertical farming. The practice involves stacking of crops in trays indoors and spraying their roots with mineral enhanced water rather than planting them in soil. Based upon the information provided in the article and my Wilson Middle School Algebra, this technique uses 9% of the freshwater of that utilized in conventional farming to produce the same amount of crops. The technique is also hyper efficient in the use of land, potentially freeing large amounts farmland for other uses. In addition, since you can utilize this technique basically anywhere, sellers can reduce shipping costs. If government policy ever had an attack of reason and allowed market forces to play a greater role in agricultural water use, the attractiveness of these techniques would be even greater.
The company featured in the New Yorker article is operating out of Newark New Jersey. The price of real estate is the likely reason for a Newark as opposed to a Manhattan operation. Climate controlled indoor space will be needed to make this practice thrive, and as luck would have it, a great deal more of it may be looking for different uses.
Of course, this speculative piece may seem entirely misguided a couple of decades because someone figured an even better use for the space. I’ve heard for instance that a charter school operator converted a Target into a very nice school facility. Perhaps agriculture will follow a different path. Let’s see what happens next.