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David Bouchier: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Consumer

Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

When the first big department stores opened in cities around the country they created a whole new way of shopping. Buyers could browse a huge range of goods in a warm sociable indoor ambiance that was entirely safe, and almost domestic. You could see and touch and even try on the goods, and discuss them with sales staff – it was a fully interactive consumer experience and even a kind of entertainment. Department stores were an immediate success, as were the suburban malls that appeared in the mid-twentieth century to provide much the same shopping experience outside the big cities.

Everybody of a certain age has memories of department stores. I remember as a child what a treat it was to be taken to astonishing places like Harrods in London. On my first visit to New York I was greatly impressed by Macy’s. As this rich shopping culture disappears, as it seems to be doing, we have suffered an significant loss. It’s not so much the “consuming” – we can do that on the couch – but the fact that traditional shopping provided somewhere to go, and people to see. It was a sociable and even an aesthetic experience.

These days most of our stuff arrives in cardboard boxes, and sociable shopping is not the only thing we have lost. The choice is necessarily much smaller. We make our list – for food for example – and the store sends us what they have in stock, with some substitutions. This adds an element of mystery to our daily diet, and can lead to some culinary adventures, but it’s not the same as seeing, touching and choosing the food for ourselves.

Retail companies now have an unprecedented amount of power over what we eat, drink, wear, read and see. We are in effect like astronauts on the space station. We are at the mercy of ground control, and we get what they send us. So I wondered whether this new supply-side economy might have a bright side, some gentle social engineering that could improve everyone’s life.

Food is a good example. Supermarkets are the department stores of food, and offer the same cornucopia of choice. We all know we should improve our diet, but sometimes the temptation is too much. If nutritionists were inserted into the food supply pipeline we would get kale instead of baked beans, salad instead of steak, and nutritious grains instead of pizza. Booksellers would deliver only educational and politically correct books instead of celebrity memoirs. When it comes to buying clothes online the retailers could do a lot to improve our choices. Many people are seduced by slender models in catalogs, but they often do not possess a mirror, especially not a three-way mirror. A three-way mirror saves many time-consuming trips to the post office with returns. We could send our exact dimensions and other biometric data with pictures to the retailer, and they would choose garments that are fitting and flattering. I can imagine Alexa and her creepy electronic friends becoming more authoritarian about everything - no more airline tickets to unapproved destinations, no trivial popular music and absolutely no serious information about anything.

We may have lost the department store with its cozy atmosphere and infinite variety of free choice, but we may be on the edge of gaining an invisible big sister who will guide our future shopping choices and make sure that everything, absolutely everything we buy is good for us.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.