🖤 Donations of all sizes power our public service journalism Give Now
“If people are sitting, they're not spending," one retail expert told us.
I've Always Wondered ...

Where has all the store seating gone? 

Janet Nguyen May 5, 2023
“If people are sitting, they're not spending," one retail expert told us.

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Sue Hartman of Washington, Pennsylvania, asks: 

Why can’t benches be put back in the store, not at the entrances? It’s bad enough that the riding carts are rarely available, but to not be able to sit for 5 minutes while shopping is extremely discriminatory to the elderly. What is the problem?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hartman noticed that her local Walmart removed the benches inside the store. 

Hartman enjoys going there, she said, because it’s an opportunity to interact with other people in her community. But it gets tiring. 

“The problem is I’m 74. I have pain everywhere,” Hartman said. 

Retail experts say the pandemic pushed the industry to encourage social distancing, which is why some decided to remove benches. That way, contact among patrons would be minimized. 

Panera and Starbucks locations have also removed indoor seating in Hoboken, New Jersey, in response to a “growing homelessness problem,” NBC’s New York affiliate reported. And in San Francisco, several Starbucks locations have removed customer seating, which some believe was intended to deter homeless people from entering, reported SFGate. Some criticized the move, calling it classist and ableist.

But the downward trend in seating didn’t begin recently — it goes back decades.

Why retailers became seatless 

Experts agree that in-store seating has been on the decline for the past 15 to 20 years, although they don’t have data quantifying the drop. 

“I’m old enough to remember when there were numerous places to sit,” said Charles MacPhee, who’s in his mid-60s and has had a four-decade career spanning construction, architecture and retail. He’s now an adjunct professor of construction management at Northwestern Michigan College. 

What happened is that retailers delved into motion analytics and ergonomic studies to better understand their customers’ physical behavior, MacPhee explained. You can place cameras in a store to see how visitors traverse space and react to the environment. 

“Basically, what the empirical data is showing through these studies is that sales are higher when people are moving and circulating,” MacPhee said. “If people are sitting, they’re not spending. It’s capitalism using empirical data to increase shareholder value.”

MacPhee said seating has declined across different settings and segments of the retail industry, including big-box chains and shopping malls.

Retailers also discourage employees from sitting on the job. That’s because retail culture favors a “dynamic sales environment” where employees present products to consumers and engage with them face-to-face, MacPhee explained. 

Karen Edwards, a senior instructor of retailing at the University of South Carolina, pointed out that one of the primary metrics retailers use to assess their performance is sales per square foot. 

“So for every square foot you take up for something that is non-sales generating, you end up having to make that up somewhere else,” said Edwards, who’s interim associate dean of academic programs at the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management.

You might still find seating at stores, experts say, but it’s placed strategically with the aim of maximizing sales or at least not costing any. A retailer might install seating in a “low-value” area where they can’t generate sales anyway, or in an area where taking a rest could actually spur a patron to buy something, Edwards said. For example, she noted that Apple stores might have benches close to products that people can test out. 

Or you may find spacious sitting arrangements in clothing boutiques with large fitting rooms. Edwards recalls going to a shop with a friend where there were comfortable chairs and Champagne. 

“It was great — and clearly driving sales,” she said. 

Some stores also might not feel the pressure to include seating because other accommodations are available. For example, some provide electric carts. Or there might be an in-store cafe with chairs and booths — again, a revenue-generating area, Edwards added.

The loss of more than seating 

Retailers may be able to earn more profits through less seating, but there are intangible costs to eliminating or not providing a place to sit. 

“I think when you reduce seating, you reduce that opportunity for social connection,” MacPhee said. 

At the mall, for example, two strangers who are sitting down might get the chance to chat while their spouses are shopping, MacPhee said. 

Seating also improves, or even enables, the shopping experience for those with mobility issues or physical ailments that require them to rest, Edwards said. “It can be a very harrowing experience that perhaps causes them to have to plan ahead.”

She recounted that when her late mother was getting older, she had physical conditions that made it difficult to shop for long periods without a break.

“I ended up buying a little, collapsible chair that I just slung over my back because she loved to shop, and I did too. But we knew that after about 10 minutes, we needed her to sit down,” Edwards said. 

Some retailers may be forgetting that consumers with disabilities are a huge part of the economy. They should consider that seating would be a valuable amenity for customers, but realize that their business could benefit financially as well, Edwards explained. 

“The concept of driving sales and serving customers’ needs can actually be married and done well if thought out and planned,” she said.

Tell us what you’ve always wondered:

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.