1,000 shops in your pocket

21.13, Tuesday 18 Oct 2022

Online shopping could be so much better. We’ve been doing it this was since the World Wide Web was the Big New Thing, and a bunch of patterns have ossified but they’re no longer relevant. It’s not easy to imagine better shops - great shops - fun shops - because we’re so used to them being hyper-optimised marketing machines, these incredibly functional meat-grinders for commerce, but I think you just have to think about stores irl…

There’s a line from the late 1700s that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. (I’ve always heard that it was said by Napoleon but it turns out it was originally from Adam Smith.)

I have a soft spot for this stereotype, pejorative sense aside, because my second job was being the Saturday boy at the local ironmongers and all village life passed through there. (My first job was accidentally doing secretarial work for a dope smuggler. Another story.)

So a store is more than a place to buy things.

I’ve misplaced my copy of Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy (Amazon; 1999) which I remember as a kind of ethnographic pseudo-science of retail environments: shoppers tend to turn left; shoppers need a place to slow down and look around when they enter but get them out of the way; shoppers will abort purchase if someone squeezes by and brushes their bum; and so on.

BUT it provides a focus on the store as a place that creates feel – whether that’s architecture connoting abundance or hot people at the entrance. Brand. (Ugh.)

And aha! I’ve just found this collection of quotes from Why We Buy which includes this on e-commerce:

Someday, I believe, cybershopping will have an added attraction: it will be fun. … I’m amazed that no shopping web site stars a living being on-screen to welcome shoppers, guide them through the site and answer questions.

Cybershopping – yes! We’re waiting. Two decades ahead of its time.

Online shopping is a total mess in that it barely takes the opportunity to create story and experience. “Drops” are the closest we get to excitement. Instead we shopping online is indistinguishable from filling in a spreadsheet. An infinite department store catalogue.

Although that’s mean on department stores. Department stores are innovators.

A hundred years ago, department stores were early adopters of escalators.

The history of escalators:

Bloomingdale’s in New York removed its staircase and installed an inclined elevator in 1900. Macy’s followed suit in 1902. The Bon March’e in Paris installed the European “Fahrtreppe” in 1906. Escalators made department stores commercially viable entities in ways that stairs and the elevator simply could not. Vertical expansion of the stores into upper levels was now as viable as horizontal expansion, but at a fraction of the cost.

But that presupposes there are people who will walk through the doors.

Stores need footfall, in addition to feel, and they get that either by placing themselves somewhere already popular, or by becoming the destination.


The thing is with shops on the web is that once upon a time they made a ton of sense because people spent time actually browsing the web.

Today? Not so much.

Which is why we individual stores resort to aggressive email marketing, and the rest is dominated by retailed large enough to colonise mental real estate: Amazon basically.

E-commerce in the early 2020s is the equivalent of heavily signposted out-of-town stores. Maybe it would be better to put the shops where the people are? Fish where the fish are.

Which is why I haven’t been able to stop thinking, since I first saw it, about KFC Pocket Franchise.

Your social media is valuable real estate. Build your KFC store on it

Friends can buy exclusive deals directly from your WeChat social feed

I think that analogy to real estate is super insightful. And the idea that I become a franchisor! Clever. Funny.

Claim at any KFC and your franchise earns real cash

I guess this only works if there is a sufficient urban density of KFCs. But I can imagine, just as I break for lunch, scrolling my socials and passing a virtual KFC, then deciding to pop in. The last step is to walk out and get my food but I was going to have to do that anyone.

It did well!

To 2,500,000++ stores in 120 days

Even celebrities built KFCs on their social estate

Social estate.

Look this is simultaneously genius and AWFUL. I admit that.

But it’s provocative, right? If this is going to be something that isn’t just me shilling for fried chicken by posting tweets with an affiliate code, it has to be something personalised, something like a destination, something with feel. It’s a brilliant challenge.

I was talking last year about the public internet thinning out and everyone disappearing into discords etc. Which means we need new ad formats. I suggested three, one of which was micro-influencers: how can a brand have 100,000 influencers?

People love to be associated with the brands they love! Think stickers on laptops, or liking the Patagonia page on Facebook.

Do people love KFC as much? Well perhaps some people. It’s not just love it’s hustle too. How could it be that people would see me as an entrepreneur, not a sellout?

  • So what does a storefront in my Discord profile look like?
  • How could I have a store hanging off my homepage that I’m really proud of?

You would take something like Shopify and make it so I could curate individual items in a MySpace-like environment, and the doorway is my user avatar. Something like that. You would see which of your friends were currently browsing. The whole purchase funnel would have to be managed within my homepage?

Like Underhill says, I would probably want live staffing. Something the generic big box infinite department stores couldn’t offer.

Back in the oooooold days (2007, insert weeping face emoji here) there was such a thing as a virtual book tour:

the increasingly popular practice of book authors touring blogs instead of touring the non-virtual bookstores of the US and staying in non-virtual and expensive hotel rooms.

Like… that? That’s what I mean.

Authors tours of social estate.

Only with persistent shops, like as a pinned tweet. And staffing.

I would love a little event space hanging off my blog with talks etc.

Dunno. There’s something here.

tl;dr – what if online stores were like really good.


McDonald’s has created its smallest restaurant ever, but you’re not invited. Rather, the minuscule building, which features drive-thru windows, outdoor dining areas, and tiny Golden Arches on the roof, is actually a fully functioning beehive.

I don’t think you need more than the headline: The World’s Smallest McDonald’s Just Opened & It’s For Bees Only.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.