Travel as the ultimate retail experience

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve been calling “retail” experiences - like the kind you get at Starbucks or Target or Marriott. A retail experience has the following characteristics:

- it’s pretty context-free: almost anyone can walk in and do the thing. I say “almost” because nothing’s ever fully context free; you need to know what kind of business it is, be able to communicate, etc, but you don’t need to be in the club or know the owner or anything.
- no relationship is formed. You can leave right after you do the thing and never speak to them again, and it’s fine.
- whoever has the money is the boss. That’s usually the customer. Dependability is assumed, and if you’re not getting what you paid for, it’s up to the proprietor to make it right. (usually this is kind of an honor code, but in extreme cases it’s legal)
- perfectly informed, perfectly rational choice (a la Homo Economicus) is assumed. If you were going to Marriott but Hampton started offering a better product for cheaper, you’d know that and go to Hampton instead.

It’s all a spectrum, right. Context isn’t on or off, choice isn’t perfectly rational or completely irrational. By saying “Starbucks is a very retail experience” I mean it’s very far on the retail end.

What’s a very un-retail experience? That coffeeshop where you’re a regular, Couchsurfing, the local Elks Lodge, your regular weekly poker game, a martial arts studio, and arguably a realtor.

The tourism industry (both techie and not) seems focused on getting travel to be as retail as possible. Hotels, trains and buses, airline search engines, guidebooks, resorts, etc. And this is not necessarily a bad thing! If you’ve got two weeks and you want to go to 7 cities throughout Czech, Germany, Switzerland, and France, you’re not going to build relationships with people everywhere; you’re not going to thoroughly research all the local customs; hell, you’re not even going to learn all the languages. I’m mostly a retail traveler, so don’t read this as a slam on retail travel.

But it’s interesting to think: how could we make some kinds of travel less retail? I mean, Couchsurfing is one way; Airbnb looked to be another way (though it varies from place to place); various slower tourism things like learning Spanish intensively in Mexico or learning to make pasta in Italy are others; travel within your own subculture is a fourth (like connecting with an opera fans club in Vienna or bike touring through Vietnam).

Someone’s already probably theorized all of this. If so, tell me who.

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