The big idea: why going shopping is due a comeback | Shopping

Here’s a funny thing. The less we go to the shops, the more we shop. We buy more stuff than ever, now that we can do so without leaving the sofa. We have bypassed the bus ride into town, stepped back from the revolving doors and escalators, silenced the tinkle of muzak, skipped the exchange of smiles and niceties with sales assistants, forgotten what it feels like to journey home from the chase with shopping bags tucked next to tired legs. Instead, we can spend our hard-earned cash with the frictionless brush of an index finger, and collect our spoils from the doormat a few days later.

This, surely, is the worst of both worlds. Let us imagine for a moment a sliding-doors scenario, in which writing shopping trips out of the story had reduced our appetite for stuff. If, thanks to technological advances, we bought what we needed, and only what we needed. Imagine if the technology had been wired so that we could click on and buy a black mascara and a pair of navy socks, or whatever, and leave it at that, without the siren call of a pile of fluffy jumpers or a charming display of splatterware mugs leading us into temptation. Imagine if online shopping had been an Ozempic for shopaholics, blunting our greed, reconnecting us with our willpower. It would still have been bad for bricks-and-mortar shopkeepers, it would still have left ugly grey-shuttered gaps to blight our high streets like rotten teeth – but it would have been in the service of a healthier planet.

London’s Big Topshop at Oxford Circus, where teenage girls once screamed like Swifties as Kate Moss strutted and posed in the shop window like a festival headliner, is still boarded up, beached like a vast blue whale two and a half years after Ikea announced it had bought the site. Half a mile away on upmarket New Bond Street, the 130-year-old department store Fenwick, long beloved of Londoners who wanted something fancier than John Lewis but less flashy than Harrods, recently closed its doors for the last time. The sad ghosts of Gap and Paperchase haunt high streets up and down the country.

And still, we shop and shop and shop online. “Buy less, buy better” is a fashionable catchphrase, but a dig into consumer behaviour reveals that we don’t tend to practise what we preach. A person in the UK now buys, on average, 28 pieces of clothing a year. Research shows that even those shoppers who say that they agree with the statement that well-made products last longer and are therefore better value for money will plump, when push comes to shove, for the cheaper option. An atmosphere of global insecurity has foreshortened our perspectives. The future seems too uncertain to picture the clothes you will be wearing or the sofa you will be sitting on a few years down the line, so you buy the cheap version and kick long-term thinking into the long grass.

What was that? You actually don’t buy that much stuff because you send a lot of it back? Hmmm. Turns out this is not a get out of jail free card. Returns platform Optoro recently calculated that only 50% of clothes that are returned are ever resold. Many are sent directly to landfill. And returns are increasing, as the rise of digital shopping has deskilled us as consumers, so that we are easily conned by good lighting into buying cheap, poorly made fabrics in colours designed to look good on a phone screen, rather than on a person. And spare a thought for the plight of the retail workforce: relegated from the shopfloor to out-of-town warehouses, with lower status, lower pay, poorer working conditions.

It adds up to a bleak picture of an activity that was supposed to be fun. Which is why the time might be right for shops – as in, actually getting up and putting your coat on and going to them – to make a comeback. Albaray, a small independent fashion label that launched online in 2021, opened its first physical store in December 2023. “We are digital first, but we always hoped to open a shop,” says Karen Peacock, who co-founded it with two other Warehouse alumni, Paula Stewart and Kirstie Di Stazio, after the Warehouse and Oasis brands collapsed in the pandemic.

Wary of London rents, and armed with online data, which “gave a good steer in terms of where our customers are”, the team visited a vacant store in Chichester, West Sussex, on a Wednesday afternoon last autumn. The site “felt lively, with plenty of people around”, and the lease was signed. “As soon as we opened, we had women coming in saying how happy they were to have a new clothing store in town, instead of clothes stores closing down and being replaced by nail salons or coffee shops,” says Peacock.

The Shops have always been best when they are about more than just shopping. Many of my favourite shopping trips aren’t special for what I bought. A raucous, overstuffed Miss Selfridge changing room on a Saturday afternoon that was so much more about my friends and I cheerleading and hyping each other up for that night’s party than it was about any of the dresses. The time I saw Diana, Princess of Wales buying tights in Harvey Nichols.

When Harry Gordon Selfridge opened his lavish central London store in 1909 – one of Émile Zola’s “great cathedrals of shopping” – he brought showmanlike flair to the British high street, installing a shooting range and an ice rink on the roof. Transplanted from Chicago, he imported an American fervour for retail as theatre. His first Christmas window displays were tableaux in homage to famous paintings by Watteau and Fragonard, inspired by the Wallace Collection, which had recently opened a few streets away.

He left the window lights on after the store closed, attracting late-night window shoppers. His competitors ridiculed this extravagance, but by the following year they were copying it. His spirit lives on: for Valentine’s Day this year, if you didn’t fancy jewels or heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, Selfridges offered life-drawing tutorials for couples to create mixed-media portraits of each other, and skateboarding lessons for two in the in-house skate bowl. Turns out there are some things you can’t buy from your sofa. And, with that, I’m off to the shops.

Further reading

Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead (Profile, £10.99)

The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola (Penguin, £8.99)

The Department Store by Jan Whitaker (Thames and Hudson, £36)

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