The latest research from the United States suggests that consumers are falling out of love with online shopping. The frantic growth of the one-click habit that has transformed the way Americans obtain their daily bread -- not to mention their books, clothes and entertainment too -- has stalled and may soon start to decline.
The latest research from the United States suggests that consumers are falling out of love with online shopping. The frantic growth of the one-click habit that has transformed the way Americans obtain their daily bread—not to mention their books, clothes and entertainment too—has stalled and may soon start to decline.
Analysts reckon the same thing will happen in Britain. While the figures still look healthy on paper, with online buying up a whopping 55% on last year, the internet accounts for just 3% of all retail sales, and there are whispers that these consumers are beginning to tire of virtual shopping and long to stand, achey-calved and slightly sweaty, in a proper old-fashioned queue once more.
What these hot, bothered but strangely fulfilled customers have recognised is that shopping was, and essentially still remains, a social activity. Merely getting hold of the goods that you require in the shortest possible time and with the least amount of effort makes a nonsense of that favourite phrase “retail therapy”, which implies a kind of glorious glutting not on the items themselves but on the process of acquiring them.
Evidence that we are once again putting the social processes of shopping over and above the mere obtaining of goods comes with British reality TV’s newest hit: Mary, Queen of Shops.
In this 60-minute format Mary Portas goes round the UK getting local boutiques to buck their ideas up. What matters to Portas is not so much the frocks that are on offer in any particular place, but the kind of feelings that they generate. Is this a space that communicates excitement and possibility to the shopper, a sense that something new could be about to happen? Or is it one that limits and frustrates or, worse still, simply bores?
Face-to-face trading has always been about a great deal more than the mere swapping of goods for currency. At its heart lies exchange in its broadest and richest sense. Along the classic trading routes of the ancient and early modern worlds were trafficked not simply carpets, china, drugs and perfume, but also ideas, knowledge and belief.
Along the old silk route stretching from China to the Mediterranean came not just luxury goods and plague, but a host of less tangible commodities that had the effect of drawing strangers into dialogue with each other. The art of diplomacy was forged not so much in splendid palaces and staterooms as in bazaars, souks and stalls.
Nearer to home, in both time and place, it was shopping as much as suffrage that was responsible for bringing middle-class women into public life in the early years of the past century.
Department stores provided the first spaces—apart from church—where unaccompanied respectable women might wander at will. The lavatories and the tea rooms—not to mention the lending libraries that so many department stores also provided—made these places the nearest thing to a safe house plonked down in the wilds of city centres. Popping out to buy a pair of gloves or some tea became a licence to roam streets that otherwise belonged to men.
Online shopping, by contrast, offers no possibility of extending one’s repertoire of desires or behaviour. You go online with a clear idea of what you already want and that is exactly what you get. Instead of being hustled, inspired, pushed or drawn into buying something that you would never have thought of but now can’t live without, you are returned repeatedly to your own deepening rut of expectations.
Far from turning the whole world into one glorious and accessible bazaar, online shopping merely petrifies an already dwindling range of options and habits.—Â