I’m always pretty pleased to stumble across an overseas parcel waiting for me on the doorstep when I arrive home from work. It generally means that my latest delivery has arrived from ASOS or Topman, or one of the other online retailers who make it so easy for me to fritter away my hard-earned salary on yet more ‘must have’ items for my wardrobe. The delivery on Friday was no different, so I feverishly ripped away the layers of polythene to examine the garments inside, having temporarily forgotten what I’d actually purchased during my latest binge. As it was Friday night and I was in a bit of a hurry to get somewhere really urgently (i.e the pub) I didn’t have time to try on any of the new clothes. I just threw them haphazardly into my wardrobe and left them there for a few days, many of them still in their wrappers. Eventually I found time to fully inspect my purchases, deciding on the whole that I had picked fairly well. A few items didn’t quite make the grade but in such situations I generally decide that it isn’t worth the trouble or expense of sending them back to the UK, so I keep them anyway for ‘wearing around the house’. I have one of the smartest lounge-wear collections in the Australian Capital Territory. It struck me as a little sad that I’ve now reached this point where I treat new purchases with such indifference, as if I couldn’t really care less whether I owned them or not. Behaving like it’s actually more of a chore than a pleasure to even bother un-wrapping the parcel to try the clothes on. I’m sure that this says a lot about my completely inappropriate attitude to spending, and my warped concept of the value of money, but I don’t think that I’m alone in this behaviour or mentality. I think that it also has a lot to do with the way in which my attitude towards shopping has changed – perhaps the way in which society’s attitude to shopping has changed. I think it would be safe to say that this change came about at the point when it became so easy to do our shopping online.
For me the whole shopping experience used to be so much more of an event. It used to involve a journey into the town centre or the nearest shopping mall, where I’d meet up with a group of friends who shared this mutual interest of hitting the shops. We’d spend hours traipsing around the hundreds of different stores, trying on garments as we went, and mixing and matching items at each stop. It would inevitably involve interaction with the sales assistants and other shoppers – not necessarily positive interactions, but interactions all the same. By the end of the day you’d be absolutely exhausted as you staggered wearily home, laden with bags of exciting new purchases to try on yet again when you arrived home. The whole high street experience sometimes felt a bit tiresome and stressful, what with having to negotiate the various pram-faced Asbo teenagers playing dubstep on the loudspeakers of their mobile phones – a sound not too dissimilar to a warehouse rave inside a bag of Walkers Crisps. Then there were the incessant charity collectors at every turn, the drunken bag-pipe players and the Peruvian super-groups playing Enya’s greatest hits on the pan-pipes. Multiple morbidly obese families grazing on Greggs steak-bakes, angry eco-warriors protesting outside Boots, the nausea-inducing smell of bath-bombs emanating from ‘Lush’ and the Special Brew-swigging smack-heads who have apparently just got out of jail and are ready to make a new start, so they ‘just need to borrow 30p to get back to Rotherham’. It may have all been a bit of an assault to the senses, but at the end of the day you’d inevitably end up feeling that you’d actually earned your purchases, in more than just a monetary sense. You would put in all of that effort and then consequently you would get your reward at the end. You experienced the feeling of the build-up and then you had the positive end result – to be able to physically carry your items home and wear them straight away. It was exciting to go shopping, and it was exciting to wear the clothes afterwards. I don’t feel that we even come close to recreating this experience when we shop online. It’s more of a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am system whereby you click a few times, enter your card details and then you’re all done. It doesn’t even feel like a real transaction because nothing ever changes hands. You step away from your laptop and it’s like nothing has happened. This is probably the main reasons why it’s so easy to spend so much money online, as you don’t really feel like you’re spending real money. Until of course, the items show up on your credit card bill at the end of the month. Nowadays most of the websites save your bank card details so you don’t even need to go anywhere near your wallet – it stays safely tucked away in the pocket of your new skinny chinos, and is none the wiser to the $200 bill that you just ran up with a few clicks of the mouse. And if you’re anything like me then you’ll most likely forget that you’ve even made the purchase. A few days will pass and then it will feel like a complete surprise when the package eventually arrives. By then the novelty will have worn off, you’ll have already hit the cooling off period and in the cold light of day everything now seems like a bit of a let-down compared to the dazzling images that you sifted through on screen. In my experience, the initial excitement of shopping online is generally short-lived.
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I don’t necessarily think that the old-fashioned shopping expedition is an extinct concept. We do sometimes still like to venture out and hit the shops in person, but I think that we often forego this in favour of a simpler option which takes up less time and thus frees up more valuable time to do other things, such as lying on the sofa. I know for a fact that I will never again spend another waking moment of my life Christmas shopping on Oxford Street. After the few times that I put myself through that torturous experience, and nearly suffered a nervous breakdown outside John Lewis, I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t put myself through that ever again. I would rather go for a day trip to the Helmand Province than venture anywhere near Oxford Circus during December. Nowadays I sit and shop from the comfort of my sofa, and I wait for the gift items to arrive (hopefully) in time for the big day. I can even ask them to gift-wrap them all for me, if I’m feeling particularly lazy.
Of course, the idea of internet shopping is by no means limited to the purchase of clothes. Nowadays we can shop for just about anything online. Many people now do their weekly food-shopping from the comfort of their own homes – thus avoiding the hordes of shoppers on a Saturday afternoon, the endless queues at the check-out, the ‘unexpected items’ in the bagging area, and the disappointment of finding that the key ingredient in tonight’s recipe has already sold out. The Tesco in Hackney seems to be plagued with this problem. It seems nigh on impossible to buy arborio rice, at any time of the day or week. There’s always just an empty box sitting on the shelf where the packets of rice apparently once sat. Whilst the majority of Daily Mail readers would have us believe that the residents of the borough of Hackney are blighted with drug problems, gang violence and unemployment, I would like to suggest that they have a bigger problem with an addiction to risotto.
Whilst a lot of the aspects of food shopping online seem to make perfect sense I still think that it has something missing. Whilst I suffer quite badly from trolley-rage and other supermarket-related afflictions, I still enjoy the experience of actually going to the shops or the fresh food markets and picking out my food in person. I like to see the produce and pick the items that I want to eat, rather than have some acne-ridden 16 year old on minimum wage, pick out my shopping for me in the middle of the night in some warehouse in Basingstoke. I also like to be spontaneous when it comes to cooking. I like to see the food and feel inspired to cook something new. I’m not somebody who can sit down at the computer on a Monday evening and plan what I’ll be eating for the next 2 weeks of dinners. It would obviously be nice to have somebody carry my things to the front door of my home, and even better if they could unpack the groceries for me before tootling off, but again I feel that you need to put in some level of effort in order to reap the rewards. Just turning on your laptop doesn’t feel like a sufficient level of input. Perhaps it’s the archaic remnants of the hunter-gatherer instinct in me. Whilst I don’t need to go out with spears, clubs and poison darts in order to slaughter my edamame bean, pomegranate and quinoa salad, I still think that I’m driven by the same primeval instinct to go out and gather my food before bringing it back to the home. Having a cheerful Tesco employee named Gavin deliver it right to my front-door doesn’t really tick the same evolutionary boxes. And Bear Grylls simply wouldn’t approve.
There’s no doubt that this rise in internet shopping is having a seriously detrimental effect on the traditional high street stores and local supermarkets. Recent reports have shown that more than 50% of consumer spending now takes place off the high-street. Of course some of this will be related to the increase in shoppers using in alternative venues, such as factory outlets or out of town shopping centres, but it’s pretty clear that a large portion of shoppers have now shifted to online purchasing. A recent estimate predicted that £1 in every £10 currently being spent by shoppers involves internet purchases. The big name stores that used to prosper in the high street can no longer compete with internet-based retailers who provide discounted products, often with free home delivery. New research from PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that, during 2011, the UK high street lost 14 chain retail stores per day. The annual loss of 5,268 stores was blamed on a number of factors, including the growing number of consumers shopping online. It’s now commonplace to see boarded-up shop fronts on the high street, where retailers have recently gone out of business. The town centres are over-run with temporary ‘pop-up shops’ and discount stores that sell dirt cheap products for a few weeks and then disappear without a trace. It paints a pretty bleak picture for the future of the high street shopping experience. It probably isn’t such a big deal in the larger cities where high-end fashion retailers and department stores still prosper, and tourists support the struggling economy, but in the smaller towns and villages this is obviously having a massive impact on the local businesses.
Perhaps some people will welcome this shift to an online market place and think of it as progress. For me I think it would be an almighty shame if we all just ended up sitting at home on our sofas, waiting for our parcels to arrive. And who’s going to pick up our pasty from Greggs?