A Social History of Shopping

  • Consumer trends

Shopping is an experience; nostalgic, exciting and memorable. But if we want our high streets to once again become a focus for the community, can the future learn from the past, asks Robert Elms?

A social history of shopping is particularly apt because shopping has always been a social and a sociable activity. From the thronging fairs and market squares of Medieval England, to the first specialist high-end stores for courtiers in St James’ and Mayfair in the 18th century, through family corner shops to fancy department stores, supermarkets, hypermarkets and full circle to today’s trendy farmer’s markets. The way we shop has always spoken volumes about who we are and who we aspire to be.


Fashions in retail come and go, from ‘pile ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap’ to minimalist designer boutiques, fast fashion and slow food. Of course technology plays its part, too. Transportation and refrigeration changed the way we eat and mass production determined the way we wore. As prices for factory-produced goods plummeted, so more people could buy more and more stuff, we all became consumers.


But has the seductive sheen of consumerism worn thin? Have we now reached a point of maximum stuff? Will we be shopping less, but looking for a better retail experience when we do? What will be the next phase in the social history of shopping?


Of course the internet is rapidly and radically altering the experience of acquiring the goods we require and the things we desire. Click and it’s yours. But the instant gratification and addictive allure of digital shopping is a shallow and sometimes frustrating thrill. It’s the crack cocaine of the consumer experience, with quite a comedown when the goods you bought online don’t fit or don’t feel right. The constant back-and-forth of internet returns is becoming a major issue – as well as a shocking waste of resources.


Personally, I could never purchase a piece of clothing without feeling the cloth and trying the cut. And I would rather browse in a real bookshop with actual human beings to talk to about plot and characterisation, not virtual ones. Buying online works for those standardised, everyday goods which were never much fun to purchase in the first place. But spending our hard-earned cash has always been about so much more than just fulfilling our basic needs.


As a young man growing up in the capital, shopping trips were divided between the daily, yet still visceral, rush of rumbustious street markets and the more exciting weekend excursions for records and threads. Down the market with mum or up town on a Saturday with my mates.

Saving up for an import jazz funk album on the Blue Note label from the coolest dudes in a backstreet Soho record store called Contempo is a day I still remember now. (And I’ve still got the record.) Acquiring a tartan-lined, navy blue Harrington jacket from the esteemed Ivy Shop in Richmond was another highlight of my youth. This was the stuff of teenage dreams, made so much more memorable because of the effort invested in acquiring them. Bus rides across town and boasting about your resources and your knowledge as you displayed your trophies to jealous mates. This was shopping as an expression of tribal affiliation and kudos by association.


I’ve seen the shopping experience from both sides. My family were in fruit and veg, costa-mongers who worked the stalls and barrows of west London and I spent many a frosty morning setting up our wares and attracting a crowd. To this day I love a bustling, tactile street market, where the senses are bombarded with cries and smells and there’s always the whiff of a bargain in the air.


I’ve enjoyed watching the way that some of the traditional old cockney markets: Colombia Road, Brick Lane, Borough, Bermondsey and Broadway have re-invented themselves for the 21st century, through hip entrepreneurialism and perpetual pop-up creativity. With their global produce and local flavour they combine the best of the old with the innovation of the new.


Flowers, beigels, maybe an art book or some hand-thrown pottery, this is pleasurable shopping as a theatrical experience. A destination day out with added people watching, fashion perusing, great street food, maybe even a craft beer or a glass of prosecco with your organic, corn fed, free-range fare. It’s a re-affirmation of our love for the urban environment, making our cities sing again.


For me this is so much more engrossing and engaging than the sterile, hermetically-sealed experience of the vast out of town shopping malls, which were once seen as the future of retail. When the car was king, it perhaps made sense to send droves of people to gargantuan car parks in the middle of nowhere, with the same litany of predictable shops and cheerless chain restaurants attached. But those identikit leviathons did untold damage to our traditional high streets and dramatically diminished the pleasure of retail therapy.


Now that polluting automobiles are frowned upon, and we increasingly look for ways to make our lives greener and simpler, many of those lifeless, soulless caverns of brute commerce are looking like gaudy glass and steel anachronisms. If you can get exactly the same goods, from exactly the same retailers online, then why bother risking traffic jams on the M25?

Everything you need should be within a maximum 15 minute walk of where you live.

Which should mean that the local high streets have an opportunity to claim back the crown. The current buzz in urban planning is all about ‘the 15-minute city’. This is the idea that everything you need should be within a maximum 15 minute walk of where you live. Doctors, dentists, restaurants, theatre, library, park, workplace, shops, great shops. Sustainable, local, individual, ethical… these are the values we cherish now.


But the average British high street – with its predictable and interchangeable brand name stores, and its bland, homogenised architecture, design and signage – is not well placed to make that 15-minute theory into a reality for most. We’ve stripped all traces of culture and creativity out of so many of our communities, so that you might as well buy from a robot online.


We need a real push to re-assert the individual identity and unique appeal of each and every parade of shops, to revive street markets, enliven pedestrianised zones, encourage the full range of our amazing multi-cultural diversity to flourish. The whole world is here and we should revel in that, make every high street a global extravaganza.


We also need to mix retail with residential, artistic, educational, fitness, entertainment and spiritual spaces. So that the high street, becomes once again, a place which fulfils our broader communal needs, not just our passing consumer whims. A true focus for the community.


It may all sound a little old fashioned, but perhaps the future can learn from the past. We need bookshops, which feed our curiosity; fruiterers, fishmongers and health food stores to feed our families. We need enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff to fire our imagination, remember our names and share our enthusiasm. Maybe even a proper record store where young people can discover the joys of collecting vinyl just as I did all those years ago. Make shopping great again.


Robert Elms has four books, thousands of articles and 25 years on BBC Radio London to his name.


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