During the last month or so I’ve tracked more than a dozen stories about San Francisco’s retail “doom loop,” and spotted many others stories about other doom loops—in climate, banking, politics, procrastination—elsewhere in the US and the rest of the world.
Top four “doom loop” stories in Google News, May 13, 2023
The word often paired with “doom loop” is “spiral.” Sometimes the term is “death spiral”—and the editors are not referring to figure skating.
Here’s Forbes on May 11: “Downtown San Francisco Spirals Toward Retail Doom Loop.”
Curbed on May 10: “Spiraling in San Francisco’s Doom Loop.”
Breaking Points, way back on December 1, 2022: “Doom Loop: Are American Cities in a Death Spiral?”
The hook for many of these stories is the announcement earlier this month that Nordstrom will be closing both its flagship downtown department store and its off-price Rack store by the end of the summer. Nordstrom joins other retailers large and small that have already left San Francisco’s downtown/Union Square area or will be doing so soon: Anthropologie, Saks Off Fifth, Uniqlo, Coco Republic, Walgreens, The RealReal, Crate + Barrel. (Longer list here.)
For a city that once prided itself on a vibrant and glamorous retail scene—I myself recall fondly the great stores of old, from City of Paris to I. Magnin to Joseph Magnin to the Emporium—it’s a gutting turn of events. Various causes are cited: the pandemic (but other cities didn’t suffer as much); the persistence of remote work (but people still want to shop, right?); and the right wing’s favorite target, crime (although retail theft has actually declined).
Whatever the reasons, the doom loop is a scary prospect. So what is it, anyway?
Here’s an explanation from a San Francisco Chronicle story (May 11,2023) that accentuates the positive: More empty office suites = more affordable housing! (Maybe.)
A doom loop is a self-reinforcing economic downturn, characterized in San Francisco by downtown office buildings that emptied during the pandemic and remain so because of remote work, leading to the real estate depreciating in value, tanking tax revenue for City Hall and thinning public services until residents and businesses leave, further shrinking the tax base. Mayor London Breed’s office insists the city is not in a doom loop, but a string of store closings and falling real estate valuations continue.
The term is attributed to Jim Collins, who used it in his 2001 book Good to Great. Doom loop companies, Collins wrote, “[fail] to build sustained momentum and [fall] instead into what we came to call the doom loop.” Doom loop was popularized in a September 2022 paper by Arpit Gupta, a specialist in retail and real estate economics who teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business. New York Times columnist Thomas Edsal quoted Gupta in a November 2022 essay:
Our research emphasizes the possibility of an “urban doom loop” by which decline of work in the center business district results in less foot traffic and consumption, which adversely affects the urban core in a variety of ways (less eyes on the street, so more crime; less consumption; less commuting) thereby lowering municipal revenues and also making it more challenging to provide public goods and services absent tax increases. These challenges will predominantly hit blue [i.e., Democratic-run] cities in the coming years.
The double-o’s make doom loop a catchy, near-rhyming buzzword. It probably doesn’t hurt that doom has deep roots in the language; in Old English it meant “judgment.” (“Doomsday” is “judgment day.”) In June 2020 I wrote about another novel doom compound: doomscrolling, defined as “Obsessively reading social media posts about how utterly fucked we are.” Doomscrolling was New Zealand’s word of the year for 2020; the American Dialect Society chose it as the digital word of the year for 2020.
Stores like Nordstrom's are doom-looping themselves, by making the in-store experience unappealing: cutting staff, reducing cleaning, closing or cutting quality on in-store restaurants, even installing cheap fixtures and carpet so that the setting is about as appealing as Costco. Compare that to the old I. Magnin, a jewel box of a store.
Posted by: Duchesse | May 16, 2023 at 03:28 AM
Doom is seemingly inescapable these days. We have the AI Doomers https://www.techdirt.com/2023/04/14/the-ai-doomers-playbook/ and other doomerisms https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomer picking up where gloom-and-doomers left off and playing on "boomer." Then there's the collective of anonymous bloggers at Doomberg, tipping their hat to former mayor Mike (Bloomberg) and his ubiquitous fin-tech terminal, who are very much on vibe with the pro-petroleum, anti-climate-catastrophists catastrophists in their counter-commentariat commentary. Of course the entertainment of this era provides us no refuge, as the video game Doom now runs on just about any device you will find around the house, office, or farm, including refrigerators, ultrasound machines, John Deere tractors, and inevitably, inside of other video games. https://www.reddit.com/r/itrunsdoom/ Meanwhile, nature is in superbloom, and it would be wise to heed the stewards of the land: Don't doom the bloom. https://twitter.com/CAStateParks/status/1646891736105361408
Posted by: Oomingmak | May 16, 2023 at 10:07 AM