Shopping: through the ages

I.

Luxurious origins

The first department store in the world, Le Bon Marché in Paris, when it opened its doors in 1852, was an enchanting showcase far removed from the ominous Dentley & Soper’s in the film, where affluent patrons could idle through well-stocked departments in an ambience steeped in luxury. Goods displayed on mannequins and revolving stands took on the role of aspirational objects of devotion offering transformational possibilities in a rapidly urbanising world. The salient features of retail would become established: fixed prices and seasonal sales, assured refunds and exchanges, glamourous advertising and shop displays.

Catalogue for the masses

The Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, when they manifested their signature forms in the late 19th century were hardly the first of their kind but what made them distinct was the focus on the customer. With expansive, vivid volumes replete with illustrations, they urged the material longings of readers who were heretofore limited to local general stores, and provided them at unmatched prices. There was also the money-back guarantee. Testimonials accordingly flowed from delighted customers to adorn subsequent issues.

Big expansion

Decades afterwards, retail too would follow the path of post-war prosperity which led away from downtown avenues to the suburbs. As cities expanded to accommodate flocks of wide-eyed young aspirants arriving from the heartlands, these suburbs became the new focus of commercial expansion and businesses rushed to cater to them with sprawling new outposts — the shopping malls and big-box stores.

II.

The end of the last millennium was in many ways a tumultuous period, when lifestyles and businesses changed more transformatively than in the many centuries preceding it. For most of history, business to consumer trade was a small and personal affair with varying levels of refinement. Trade empires such as the East India Company formed but the spices and silk were still sold at small, discrete outlets. And these will remain in business, some to be inevitably eclipsed by the venerable department stores and run over by malls, others establishing themselves as heritage outposts, and even more arriving on the scene with new ideas; retail continues to re-invent itself.

Online spheres

To this heady excitement of the 90s, the first dot-com businesses arrived, as exuberant upstarts taking the remote-shopping innovations of the day to the newly public World Wide Web. It’s sometimes wrongly assumed that online commerce was pioneered by business to consumer enterprises. From the late 60s, there was increasing interest among businesses to interconnect their computing systems for easier exchange of information, and transactions. The format was refined and coined EDI — Electronic Data Interchange — and along with teleshopping constituted the proto-online infrastructure on which ecommerce would be built upon. But teleshopping was essentially the mail order catalogue broadcast on television, EDI was the true novel technology.

Everything for everyone

Ecommerce with its singular capacity for broad reach and deep inventory is a retail model unlike no other. Like Amazon is much more than any physical store — perhaps more like a mall, but again a city seems like more of an apt description. It produces some goods of its own, which it sells; it also sells goods marketed and made by others, hosts other stores as a marketplace, provides streaming services and even operates as a library of sorts. The Amazon I see is almost never the Amazon another does, exhibiting uncanny versatility and understanding to its customer like few brick-and-mortar establishments could aspire to. If a city, it is also one accessible from anywhere.

Trails and echoes

So with the stores disappearing into the digital fabric surrounding our lives, any contemplation of shopping now begins with the phone — to be precise, the smartphone, in many ways less phone and more personal computer. When we talk of user experience in ecommerce, it’s more about how it is to place an order with the phone than the unpacking experience. If the purchase is made at a physical outlet, the decision yet often follows from an earlier browsing session.

III.

Amidst the surprises and tribulations of the past many months, it’s hard not to look at the state of physical retail and wonder — is this how it ends? It seems like a long time coming, the strength having drained out of the machinery long ago and barely kept running so as not to break the cycle. And the cycle itself, propelled by ballooning credit and aggressive competition from an ever-increasing roster of incumbents, looks increasingly questionable against the backdrop of resource depletion and lasting environmental change.

The shape of cities

There are few things inevitable about the cities and towns we live in. Each has its unique developmental history within larger tapestries of regional and national histories. The older ones in Europe and the Americas tend to have central squares and churches with avenues and parks spreading out. Brand new metropolises take a different approach, prioritising roadways over cobbled streets, yet keeping many of the familiar elements. Among these, a significant portion of real estate dedicated to shopping.

Consolidated paradigms

Wishful though it may seem, there are contemporary concepts which reframe these questions with fresh perspective, resulting in integrated omnichannel experiences like the SSENSE flagship in Montreal. The role of a physical store in the digital age is primarily about experience. The sensory, tactile information that reaches our minds as we run our hands over a soft flannel, the feeling of a chaise longue, the scent of cologne, and feeling a brand space. Until such a day when technology arrives to represent tangible matter with perfect fidelity, this is the unique domain of physical retail. Not the price, provenance or technical composition.

Shopping, an experience

Glancing back to the moments in the film, it’s hard to imagine that the mesmerising experience of browsing through certain stores could hold much future in the days to come. It’s a sensation all but lost to time, vestiges of retail-gone-by that require an ambience with the potential to surprise. In the media-saturated days we live through, when everything seems to have been already seen and discarded, it’s only the rare luxury brand and curious old stores withholding information offline that hold out such promise. Their carefully cultivated or happenstance ambience are also partial to the realm of material reality. With endless devices presenting their adjusted views, no online store could hope to make a comparable impact.

Nordic digital sales consultancy. We help companies get more revenue and more customers in the digital era.

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