As cities get smarter, the way we buy, sell and swap goods is changing. Shops are disappearing from our high streets and malls. For many, it’s now more convenient to buy online. Physical retail and food spaces aren’t dead though, and businesses are realizing they can offer something the internet can’t: engagement, personality and fun.

Shops are part of the fabric and flow of urban life. The sound of chitter-chatter and footfall, the clean smell, and textures and reflective surfaces all help draw us into one big, vibrant melting pot. Advances in technology may mean that up to a quarter of existing shopping malls are predicted to close in the next five years, but a new breed of retailers and eateries are finding new and quirky ways to keep us on the high street.

b8ta, multiple locations in USA

A big advantage physical stores have over online shops is that they offer a tactile experience. We can go in, pick something up and get a feel for it before deciding whether to make a purchase.

b8ta is a technology-driven retail chain that encourages us to touch and try. The shops – the first one opened in Palo Alto, California, in December 2015 – display gadgets and gizmos out of their boxes. Most of these products are from startups that struggle to get noticed online. This way, they can receive unrivalled exposure in physical stores.

Each product on display has a tablet next to it that can give additional information, such as specifications and how the price compares to places where it’s stocked online.

The focus is very much on allowing us to explore, discover and play around with new technology and connected devices that could improve the way we interact with our homes. b8ta assistants (know as ‘testers’) are on hand to help with demoing and the purchasing process.

Zhongshuge Bookstore, Chengdu, China

Bookstores have been battling against falling sales and the rise of e-books for a few years now, so it’s no surprise that they’re looking for ways to reinvent themselves as temples of culture – places that are more than just rows of books and somewhere to sip coffee and have a browse.

In the Zhongshuge Bookstore in Chengdu, the interior is designed to whip up feelings of nostalgia and create magical memories. Mirrored ceilings, wooden windmills and giant toadstool-like structures in the children’s section look like we’ve stepped into the pages of Alice in Wonderland or any Roald Dahl novel.

surrealistic bookstore in Chengdu, China
Optical illustion: mirrored ceilings at Zhongshuge Bookstore.
Photo: Shao Feng

Runner Camp, Shanghai, China

With cities always on the move, it can be hard to find the time to exercise. This is where Runner Camp in Shanghai comes in. It’s a fitness and sports store with a twist: There’s a gym and showers on the upper level.

An orange staircase that divides the two floors is the centerpiece. It zigzags across the shop, with its wide steps that are easy to run up perfect for trying out those trainers we’ve just bought.

Molecure Pharmacy, Taichung district, Taiwan

Collecting a prescription for the flu or a stomach bug isn’t exactly glamorous, but one business in Taiwan hopes to subvert the sterile image of pharmacies that are typically white, green and pale blue in color.

Laboratory tables made from solid wood with plants growing on top give the space a natural and organic feel. And with drugs and medicines displayed in warm, colorful bottles and containers on minimalist racks, the space could easily make us forget that we’re ill.

a laboratory tables made from wood with plants growing on top
Natural materials replace sterile pharmacy atmosphere.
Photo: Kuomin Lee

Original Unverpackt, Berlin, Germany

Food is another product that technology has revolutionized. With the ability to purchase it at our fingertips, we can order when we want from where we want. But the problem is we’re buying more than we need and, as a result, we’re wasting more than we should.

This is an issue Berlin-based waste-free supermarket Original Unverpackt wants to highlight. Most of its food is unpackaged, which can be startlingly to see but ultimately means there’s no plastic waste.

It also means that items like cereal, beans and rice don’t come in specific quantities and customers have to buy considerately. For the ethical shopper in particular, this store is a must-visit.

Solera, Cologne, Germany

We may be able to watch videos online to find out more about the food we buy and how to prepare and cook it, but it’s not the same as experiencing it first-hand.

Solera is an independent supermarket in Cologne. The shop sells Spanish delicacies, and while the bright yellow, red, and blue, contrasted with the black, makes the store look like the TV set of a food game show from the ‘80s or ‘90s, it also features a kitchen and workspace for seminars and cooking lessons to spark interest in the history and delights of Spanish food.

colorful exterior of Solera supermarket
Cooking class in the supermarket? Si, at Solera.
Photo: Masquespacio

Gelatoscopio, Mexico City, Mexico

Though it’s good to eat healthily and have an active lifestyle, a little treat once in a while doesn’t hurt.

The Gelatoscopio ice cream parlor in Mexico City wants us to treat ourselves and has been designed to titillate our senses. The wall is a mint-green color with a metallic wafer-like texture.

There’s no glass separating the parlor from the street, so intrigued passers-by are encouraged to walk up and touch the wall and its elements. There are also a few openings where orders are placed and where we can catch a peek of our ice cream being prepared.