Discussion There’s life in the communal shopping experience yet

by Michael Wise _______5th November 2018
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It was about 8 o’clock last Sunday night. There was a knock at the door. ‘Number seven?’ the man enquired. ‘Huh?’ ‘Number seven? Ah!’ he said, focusing on the two number 1s screwed into our front door, ‘number 11. Sorry. Sorry.’

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him because he looked distracted: on edge and tired. He was, of course, a delivery driver and given both the day and the time of day, it was easy to surmise that he was under pressure to make deliveries and that time was running out.

After all, it had been dark outside for some time already. Maybe he’d forgotten to put his clock back? It happens to us all but one can imagine it happening to a delivery driver more often than most. Not because they’re especially hapless and forgetful; more that they always seem to be rushing to the point of agitation.

In the circumstances – a 10-hour shift over, then a quick dinner and a couple of beers before flaking out – almost anyone might forget to put their clock back. Then again, with smartphones and whatnot, it’s all taken care of.

(And it’s easy to imagine some special Amazon delivery driver app adding a coupe de grace to the morning alarm call. ‘Rise and shine,’ Alexa might say, calmly yet with passive-aggressive intent. ‘Failure to render your prompt availability at dee-pot will result in sanction. Have a nice day.’)

Of the many things to dislike about the Amazon model, it’s the delivery that stands out, probably because it’s the bit that’s most apparent to us: the customer overlord.

Take the vans, for example. If I was the boss, I’d want a fleet of gleaming, pristine vehicles with ‘Amazon’ written on them. The wearing of a uniform I, personally, can take or leave, but in general it seems to be the way of things. And, anyway, if one was to be worn, it would be done so with pride since the driver would be an actual employee, the pay and conditions would be better and the schedule not so gruelling.

Yet I’m not the Amazon boss; I’m a customer. We undertake a perfunctory exchange, eyes then wandering to the street to notice a wonky old van with rusty wheel arches. And then we read stories about the boss’s ambitions for space exploration. How to reconcile the two?

One of the most depressing aspects of the ‘net explosion has been the great reveal that, contrary to personal expectation, the new gods seem, in terms of their morals and overweening ambition, atavistic – a throwback to their late 19th century forebears.

It came as little surprise to read this week that Tim Berners-Lee agrees, advocating a breaking up of the behemoths that have grown over the last 10 to 20 years. Although even if that were to happen, the question of whether our habits – not just our shopping habits but our online habits in general – are all that good for us.

In middle age, it’s tempting to conclude that younger people, who have never known any different, will not see a problem in any of this: that it represents a progress that is good. Yet there is a conflict – one that, I suspect, is shared by many. We read the stories about working conditions but click ‘order’ anyway because, well, the product and the process are just so damn good.

But at what cost? Besides the fact we’re propagating what appears a modern form of servitude, while boosting the wealth of someone who is turning into Lex Luthor before our very eyes, there’s also the question of how much of the stuff that’s just one click away is stuff that we genuinely, truly need?

Again, much like observing the growth of the internet, personal perspective is important; and watching the rise of this almost flippantly disposable form of consumerism, it’s easy to ask whether something vital has been lost. Is built-in obsolescence better than the purchase of a superior quality of product, which lasts longer and, in its maintenance, engenders a ‘make do and mend’ mentality?

Michael Gove was derided the other week for daring to suggest that council tips might be used as places of exchange rather than simply disposal. After all, it might be the case that one person’s rubbish is another’s treasure. It’s just an idea and yet the way in which it was greeted led one to wonder who, between Mr Gove and his detractors, it was that sat on second-hand furniture and rode a second-hand bike as a child.

As always, the hope is that the worst excesses that come with rapid change will be tempered and that a common sense and decent sort of equilibrium will win out: that the delivery drivers will get better pay and conditions; that no one company, or companies, will gain or maintain a hegemony that blots out the sun – that an open marketplace of ideas flourishes, in other words, and that more companies might collaborate; that our institutions and lawmakers might react with sufficient speed to temper the wrongs that rapid technological change can cause…

…and, most importantly of all, that we can keep the easy habits that new technology leads to under control. None of this is to say that such habits are bad; as always, though, moderation is the important thing. If the growth in online shopping amounts to an explosion, then it won’t last forever.

And what of our other retail habits? The ‘Death of the High Street’ is being documented to the point of condescension but with the week also bringing news that more than 200 out-of-town shopping centres are ‘in crisis’, then a comforting thought is one that imagines a migration of customers over time back from the latter to the former. That the big retail outlets will bow to the inevitable and move online to offer mass-produced goods while the High Street becomes more the preserve of independent shops offering the sort of goods that the customer prefers not to buy sight unseen, are crafted rather than manufactured, or perhaps reflect the local community in some way.

The inexorable rise of one should not signal doom for the other and while convenience might be…well…convenient, is it truly king? This time of year always suggests – to me at least – that there’s plenty of life yet in the communal shopping experience and the rise in popularity of Christmas markets also suggests as much.

So if our habits have indeed become more slothful and delivery drivers are taking the strain, then it’s right to do something about it: to put down the tablet, get the coat, gloves, scarf and boots on and get out there.

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