The rise of online shopping: Department stores are permanent exhibitions
Do you buy most things on the internet nowadays? I imagine you do. Certainly, the global retail sector is collapsing. The great department stores are closing and high street chains are rapidly going bankrupt.Updated: Dec 18, 2019 12:13 IST
Do you buy most things on the internet nowadays? I imagine you do. Certainly, the global retail sector is collapsing. The great department stores are closing and high street chains are rapidly going bankrupt. Many top brands are now beginning to regards their stores as flagships --- as emporia to show off their goods and to draw attention to the core values of the brand. (Forgive me for slipping into marketing speak, here).
Years ago, I interviewed Angela Arhendts who was then head of Burberry, the old British brand which had been revived by two smart, American chief executives (first Rose Marie Bravo and then Ahrendts) and was riding a wave of popularity.
Interviews with the heads of fashion companies are rarely exciting (the designers are usually more fun) but I was fascinated by Ahrendts’ take on the future of fashion. She believed that in the not too distant future, even high fashion (to the extent that Burberry is high fashion) would be sold on the internet. The stores would be like permanent exhibitions, rather than sales points.
Time suggests that she had the direction right. Yes, people like the idea of touching and feeling high quality goods. But once they have decided what they want, they buy it on the internet.
I don’t know how that worked out for Burberry. Ahrendts went off to join Apple and the brand hit a rough patch. But certainly, more and more luxury brands are taking internet sales much more seriously than they ever thought they would.
And it isn’t just things at the top end of the market that have become internet commodities. I am not a great shopper myself. If I spend more than ten minutes in a shop, I get bored. About the only things I buy lots of are books.
But these days, I prefer to read on Kindle. (I only buy reference books in their ink and paper versions.) The reasons have to do with convenience. You can read on a Kindle pretty much everywhere. On most aeroplanes, the lighting is so bad that you struggle to read an ink and paper book. So it is with hotel rooms. And too many cheapskate publishers now save paper by using small typefaces which really annoys me. Books can also be heavy to pack if you are travelling.
None of this has affected my love of bookshops though. I can still spend hours looking at books. But I have now got sneakier. Unless it is a picture book or one that I know I will refer to again and again, I don’t buy books at shops. I take pictures of the covers, go home and then order the kindle editions.(Yeah. I am not proud of it...)
If I read a review of a book I think I want to read in a foreign newspaper or magazine, I no longer rush off to an Indian bookshop to see if it has been imported. I simply download it on kindle. It’s much quicker and easier.
It has got to the stage where I even download books I already own. I interviewed William Dalrymple live on stage for the Delhi launch of The Anarchy, his new big (and important) book. His publisher very kindly sent me a copy in advance. But I went ahead and bought a Kindle edition anyway because I knew I would find that easier to read when I travelled.
At a purely economic level, the use of the internet makes sense. And it does too at a technological level. Why would anybody spend £ 14 on a DVD of a TV series when you can just watch it as part of your Netflix and Amazon package? It’s cheaper and easier. (But it does require patience. I always end up buying DVDs of British shows because I can’t spend months or years waiting for some streaming service to finally show A Very English Scandal or Killing Eve.)
But there is the cost factor too. When you buy something in a shop, you are paying for the rent of the premises, the salaries of the sales staff, the air-conditioning and God alone knows what else. So why not just buy it on the net, cut out the middle-man and the unnecessary expenses that retail always entails and get it at once for less money?
There is also what is called the long tail factor. As you probably know, shops usually make eighty per cent of their revenue from 20 per cent of their inventory. So they only stock the most popular items. Besides, retail space is always limited. But if you buy on the internet where warehouses are much larger than any shop can be, you can order pretty much anything you want.
So, will I miss the big shops when they are dead as inevitably they will be ? No, not really. My idea of hell is standing in line at the changing room at Zara or H&M. The fancy shops are even more annoying. Every visit to Harrods with its gawking tourists and its bogus air of snobbish exclusivity makes me want to throw up. I am not a fan of big retail or of giant shops.
But there are things I do miss. I quite like the older-style, more artisanal establishment when you deal with an experienced and well-informed shop-keeper (not a bored sales person marking time between real jobs who expects to be doing something more enjoyable in a few months’ time).
I did two seasons of a show called Custom Made because I believe that we, in India, should not lose ourselves to the lure of branded goods. We are fortunate to be in a country where there are talented craftsmen and artisans who will make things specially for us--- usually at a fraction of the price of some so-called “luxury product” made in some factory and massively over-priced only because they have stuck a fancy label on it.
As much as possible, I try and get Indian craftsmen to make high quality things. If you can order handmade shoes why would you spend thirty thousand rupees on Gucci or Ferragamo? If a tailor can make you a nice suit, with a floating canvas construction, cut to the contours of your body, why would you pay so much more for a fused Armani suit mass manufactured by the thousands in some faraway factory? If somebody can handcraft cuff-links for you, why would you buy them from say, Thomas Pink or even Zegna?
So, frankly, when the great retail shake out is complete and the fancy malls are left with empty spaces where the shops used to be, I will not shed too many tears. It was always a wasteful way of selling things. And now that technology has given us the internet, why should we bother with those shops and their mark-ups?
But I do believe that the bespoke and made to order sectors will survive. Our parents went to tailors, why shouldn’t we?They had all their jewellery handmade. Why shouldn’t we?
The sooner we rid ourselves of the aura of the designer culture and stop paying so much for nasty factory-made things at overpriced malls, the happier I will be.
In an ideal world, there will be the internet for commodities. And artisans for luxuries.
And I will not weep over the death of the fancy retail shop.
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