Ray Oldenburg introduced the concept of the third place in 1989 in his book The Great Good Place. He characterizes third places as neutral spaces free of inequality, where conversations can flow in an open and accessible space, and where regular patrons help establish the mood in an accepting and playful environment. Most importantly, the third place is a “home away from home.” Oldenburg (1999) contends it is not the physical venue that establishes a third place, but the characteristics of the space. Over the years many establishments have identified this type of environment as a goal or even as an added value.
However, in a time-pressured world where mobile phones are indispensable accessories and face-to-face conversations lose out to social media engagements, one must consider whether a traditional third place as described by Oldenburg truly exists anymore. As Scott Wright (2012) argues, the third place is becoming obsolete, with a virtual “third space” becoming more relevant instead.
It can be argued that a physical third place can still exist and thrive, but it must adapt and evolve to create new customer experiences and to remain relevant in changing times to redefine traditional concepts. One store that has tackled this challenge is Eataly, which has created a unique interpretation, and as a result a new market to operate within. A modern Italian bazaar, Eataly uses both its physical layout and its participatory characteristics – at 9 different food service stations within the market – as the links that draw people together.
The store is arranged in such a way that allows fluid transition from café to crêperie, supermarket to restaurant, cheese boutique to wine bar, and so on. Each section adds to Eataly’s story and contributes to an overall experience for patrons. People share a common, limitless, and nuanced adventure, all routed in Italian food. While the concept itself is unique, Eataly’s modern interpretation of the third place delivers on much of the traditional third place criteria:
1. Create a welcoming atmosphere. A third place creates an environment where all people are equal and accepted, where you feel as comfortable as you do at home. Eataly has prioritized creating a positive and welcoming cultural experience no matter the reason for the visit. This is demonstrated first through the open and welcoming physical attributes of the space and the friendliness of employees. Second, if one intends on a quick visit, the sight and smell of food being prepared for other patrons encourages a longer stay.
2. Find a common ground to unite people. Building on a welcoming atmosphere, a third place should connect people by promoting a positive social experience. Eataly has used a universal love of food to bring people together, be it friends catching up over a weeknight dinner, or customers looking for the expertise of an employee when selecting a bottle of wine. Every activity within Eataly promotes discussion across a common ground, encouraging relationships to develop and grow.
3. Deliver endless customer journeys. A defining characteristic of a third place is the loyalty of regular customers. Eataly provides a wide variety of experiences that use food and drink as a bonding mechanism to encourage a continued experience over time. For example, cooking classes and bocce games are regular occurrences at Eataly. Every experience can be different, but the at the core remains the intent to promote a social experience that brings people back again and again, becoming regular participants in the experience. In the end, Eataly’s goal is to develop lifetime customers, who build the character of the concept.
While pieces of Oldenburg’s original concept of the third place may be challenged in today’s world, the spirit of his ideas can be applied to create a modern customer experience. The Eataly experience sends people home thinking about that Involtini Di Carpaccio they learned to cook, or the new Tortiglioni they just bought in mercato section. Most importantly, it makes them think ahead to their next Eataly experience.
Oldenburg, Ray (1999), The Great Good Place. 3rd edition. Da Capo Press.
Wright, Scott (2012), "From “Third Place” to “Third Space”: Everyday Political Talk in Non-Political Online Spaces." Javnost - The Public. 19.3. 5-20.
Sergio Gutierrez, Ankur Johar, Christian Lillo, Anjali Singh, and Sofia Sourtzis are students in Markus Giesler’s Customer Experience Design MBA elective course at the Schulich School of Business, York University.