Was Urban Outfitters-Vetri Deal in Part About Loneliness?

Why this partnership is a sign of the times — but not as a corporate “sell-out.”

There was a lot of head-scratching this week when Urban Outfitters, struggling in sales, purchased the Vetri Family restaurant group. I understand the concern over a beloved local figure and craftsman “selling out” to a corporation famous for flannel and failed attempts at irony. But Urban and the Vetri people have worked together for years, and two big Philly power players are a match made in business heaven. (For those still bummed: The crown jewel Vetri-name restaurant wasn’t sold. Marc Vetri and co. also pledge to oversee all their Philly restaurants as usual — we’ll certainly notice if they don’t.)

The most interesting thing about this deal isn’t the people involved. It’s one of the reasons Urban’s chief development officer, Dave Ziel, gave for the purchase: filling a social void. As Ziel told Philly.com, “We think retailing needs to become more experiential … I think there’s a craving for real socializing beyond social media.”

This is one take on the fact that “young people” — younger than 50 — are spending more to dine out but less on clothes. The idea is that restaurants provide face-to-face social experience people need and are getting less elsewhere. As a retail services executive told the Inquirer: “Restaurants are one of the few experiences that you can’t get on the internet.”

Urban is apparently betting on that. Part of their plan is to combine dining and shopping so that people show up to hang out over pizza, but leave with more denim cutoffs, or something. They’ll do this in the (ultra-suburban) Urban “lifestyle village” to be built in Devon, which will probably feature multiple Vetri restaurants alongside retail outlets. This kind of mixed-use center apparently fits the philosophies of both companies. Vetri himself said that his group and Urban share an appreciation for socialization defined by in-person interactions.

Building business around in-person contact is a fair pushback against the digital age, amidst steady concerns that digital life is lonely. Just do a Google News search for “loneliness” and you’ll see plenty of recent takes, reaching across over a decade of handwringing about an “age of loneliness.” The internet gets a lot of blame for creating arguably superficial social networks. Predating the effects of internet dependence, others have wondered if we’re experiencing a loss of community due to changing social structures, including later marriage and a decline in traditional community activities, such as going to church or civic actions like voting.

These concerns can be countered, or at least questioned. For one thing, it’s not clear that people today are in fact lonelier day-to-day than they were in the past. As for the breakdown of community, maybe what’s really happening is that traditional social structures — family units and what are considered “legitimate” community institutions — are morphing into new forms that need support and time to flourish.

Regardless of how community today actually stacks up against the past, concerns continue to abound over isolation as a drain on happiness. This past week, HealthDay reported a study suggesting that, on one hand, American teens and 20-somethings are happier than ever (there’s the argument for Snapchat! Or maybe those younger people just lie). On the other hand, Americans 30 and older “find happiness elusive.” One important candidate as to why, according to researchers? Declining sense of community in adulthood.

This all creates ample space for businesses to sell customers a sense of connection. Take, for example, the “Share a Coke with [X]” campaign, renewed last spring. Coke bottles featured over 1,000 personal labels, from “Mom” and “Soulmate” to “Jeff” and “Jill” (they print the top 1,000 U.S. names). According to Coke’s marketing team, that campaign was so successful because it tapped into young people’s desire for an “ultimate selfie” experience — something that makes them feel both unique and part of the crowd. As much as that statement offends my inner grump drinking beer on a stoop complaining about kids these days, it makes sense. After all, even when you’re trying to stand out, that means you care how you fit with a larger group.

It would be easy (for me the grump, at least) to rant that ideas like the Coke campaign and Urban’s “lifestyle village” sell cheap imitations of community. But it’s not inherently bad when someone uses soda to feel connected, or that Urban wants to profit from the appeal of meeting your people over pizza. It’s mostly a testament to the fact that as society shifts, people will keep building ways to feel connected to a group. And some attempts to do that will bring us to weird new frontiers — like Urban Outfitters investing heavily in pizza.

Follow @elenagooray on Twitter.