It sucks in the city as we all shop from the sofa
What will cities look like in 50 years’ time? Given the pace of change you could bring forward the question. What will cities look like in 10 years’ time?
One by one, across almost every retail sector, webbed-up economies such as ours are bearing witness to individual instances of a broader social upheaval.
Little shops which have been part of our communities for decades are quietly vanishing. In boardrooms decked out with marble at a time when retail looked unassailable, department store executives furrow their brows as they ponder plummeting revenues, with big companies such as David Jones experiencing a 40 per cent drop in profit this past financial year.
Next time you walk down the street have a look at the shops that are currently there. With the exception of pharmacies, saved (for now) by the need to fill prescriptions, almost every shop you can find has a cyberspace equivalent which is growing in popularity.
Across every age bracket, we are more adept at using mobiles and tablets. We are happier to divulge our credit card details. We are comfortable browsing from the couch via a search engine, rather than driving into town, parking the car and traipsing through stores. The reason late-night shopping was introduced – to give us a chance to buy things outside of working hours – has been rendered obsolete by the fact that we can now shop for everything all of the time without leaving home.
It is conceivable that within a generation western cities will become service and entertainment centres with no retail component. There will be no high street. There will be government buildings, financial offices, law firms. Restaurants and cafes will survive.
But it is hard to see the continuation of anything close to the current number of department stores, boutiques, shoe stores, bookstores, homeware and hardware stores, kitchen suppliers, you name it. Even fresh food stores and supermarkets will suffer, as it is now common for people to do their weekly food and grocery buying over the net. Music stores have already largely vanished.
There was another marker of this change this week with the closure in my hometown of the Mary Martin bookstore, which opened in 1945. For a short time Mary Martin was in Pirie Street and while I was doing my cadetship at The Adelaide Advertiser in the early 90s I would habitually sneak over the road on the boss’s time to buy books. It was a great bookstore, although I had others which were favourites.
One was Liberty books, which I associate with the advent of late-night shopping in the 1970s, when my parents would bring us into town for a Friday dinner at Campari or Da Clemente, then wander to Hindmarsh Square where my sister and I would each pick out a book.
Through high school I liked going to the Third World Bookstore in Hindley St for the scungy late-night weirdness of it all, with its bizarre collection of Marxist pamphlets from the USSR, and over-sized soft porn “art” books, at which I’d usually have a perv. Through university it was Imprints in Hindley St, where I’d go on Saturdays after working my shift at the Central Market, and buy a book each week.
Of these four bookstores only Imprints remains, thumbing its nose at the digital age, but for how long.
Web enthusiasts talk about the ease with which we can now shop. Not only do you not have to leave the house, the algorithms used on sites such as Amazon are so sophisticated that they can replicate your brain. If you use Amazon to buy some CDs by Neil Young, Radiohead and Etta James, a Mexican cookbook, and a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the auto-suggest feature will scarily resemble the inner workings of your retail mind.
Amazing, I guess. I always preferred the search engine at Imprints. His name was Greg and he knew what I liked to read. What’s more, there is a lot to be said for leaving the house from time to time. You get to talk to people.
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