Commercial real estate has its own language full of acronyms and abbreviations. Combining the jargon around a large and complex industry with marketing lingo has generated a long list of buzzwords. Buzzwords can be useful, they help describe a particular idea and are catchy by design. But they also don’t have an agreed upon definition. They can mislead, confuse or obscure what they’re trying to describe. Here are some of the buzzwords in commercial real estate that could use a bit more clarification.
Officially right-sizing is the process of converting your office or team to the ‘optimum’ size but in practice, right-sizing usually means one thing: down-sizing. The term has become a colloquial euphemism for businesses shedding workers and office space. Amazon isn’t right-sizing by building two new massive campuses on the East Coast, it’s simply expanding its footprint. To give weight to this euphemism, it’s often accompanied by terms like proactive, efficient, and strategic.
The decision to right-size may very well be those things, but it is down-sizing, not right-sizing, no matter how you want to cut it. Right-sizing is part of a long list of words to describe the same thing. Reshaping the workforce, reducing redundancies, involuntary separation, career-change opportunity, all mean people are getting laid off. The term only exists to soften the blow and obfuscate the reasoning for using less office space for a smaller workforce. Companies across the country are reevaluating their office footprint as employees demand a more flexible workspace. Over the next year, we’ll see plenty of occupiers ‘right-size’ their office—at least what is right for right now.
Boutiques are great, small shops that sell trendy clothing and luxury goods. Applied to retail, boutique is a wonderful term that tells you something about the store and its tailored experience. But outside of retail, it’s simply marketing hodgepodge for a small operation. Boutique brokerages, boutique investment banks, boutique office space. What do these terms even mean other than small? Often boutique is taking the place of ‘niche’ to convey some sort of specialization. Say that instead. Being small and caring about the quality of your product(s) are great concepts for a business, but throwing around the term boutique to describe the operation adds a pretentious air by adding needless French words. Now everything can be boutique, try it. Boutique pencil sharpener. Boutique incarceration. The term has become so ingrained in our brains its second meaning was officially added to the dictionary but I refuse to allow the Dictionary Industrial Complex to tell me how to think. I prefer my boutique dictionary.
On every block of every city, you will find some real estate professional using the term live-work-play. The prominence of mixed-use developments and the focus on walkability (another buzzword I will not be getting into today) has the term live-work-play invading every conversation. The term is incessant. I want it gone out of sheer annoyance. Live-work-play is not a new concept. Cities have been designed for live-work-play since the inception of city planning itself. As humans, we live, we work, and we play no matter where we are. Some may work more or play more than others, but all the term is describing is the basic structure of daily life. We might as well say breath-eat-sleep. Yes, I would like to live in a place where I can eat, breathe, and sleep. Thankfully real estate developers are eager to provide these basic necessities of life.
Big data may be an important concept but it’s a terrible phrase. Big data tells us nothing we actually need to know about the concepts behind it. Big is a relative term, what was big a decade ago is quaint now, especially in the world of technology and data. A few decades ago “Big Data” was a terabyte of storage stored in an entire room, now you can fit a terabyte of data in your pocket for $25 off Amazon. Plus, data sets are much more than big. The volume of data is one aspect, equally important is data’s velocity and variety. What type of data is it? The big type. Big Data tells you the reader nothing about what is actually being done with all that data. In a survey reported by Deloitte, over 80 percent of executives said the term big data was overstated, confusing and misleading. The problem with Big Data as a buzzword is it requires far more specificity to actually mean anything.
People are agile, not offices. Offices can be flexible, they can be open, they can be adaptable. They cannot be agile. In theory, I support this buzzword. The concept behind agile offices is important to understand, especially in the rapidly evolving office environment wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. As the workplace gives way to workspace and office design and architecture change to accommodate shifts in culture, what office space looks like is more varied than it ever has been. I can begrudgingly allow its use in the world of project management because teams can be agile, but the physical space they use cannot be. Let’s pledge to use the more accurate terms flexible office and adaptable office.
Marketing professionals will tell you omnichannel is more than a buzzword. Don’t believe them, they are the ones who invented it. As it applies to real estate, omnichannel retail is the process of providing a seamless purchasing experience whether in-person or online. That was a special concept about a decade ago. Today, practically every retailer is doing omnichannel retail. The term isn’t special anymore, it’s describing the basic structure of the retail business. If I can order a Big Mac on my phone for pick-up at any of the dozen McDonald’s locations in my city, your omnichannel retail is no longer special. I can even have it delivered. Omnichannel retail has become so ubiquitous the term now seems redundant.
All development is transit-oriented. Any place that is not oriented towards transit is by definition unreachable. What people really mean when they use the term is public transit oriented-development. Houston’s 26-lane stretch of I-10 is certainly transit-oriented development, tens of thousands of people drive the stretch every day. Transit means different things to different people, suburb dwellers think of transit as highways. City dwellers see transit as rail-based. That’s why it’s important to distinguish public transit-oriented development from other forms. Public transit-oriented development is a key concept in city planning, many cities around the United States are in desperate need of more of it. Houston has been clamoring for improved public transit, some of the cities best new developments have been along the city’s very limited light rail line. Instead, they’re getting more highways. Harris County (the one that Houston is in) is now suing the Department of Transportation over its twisted definition of transit, claiming that it is prioritizing cars over people. There are many forms of transit, we need to specify which ones deserve preferential treatment, vague buzzwords don’t help that process.