July 24, 2011

The search for social shopping in the internet and big-box age

Durkheim thought that one reason why people in modern economies set up such a specialized system of division of labor was to recover a sense of solidarity that had been lost after we left a primitive way of life, where we were compelled to rely on each other more directly. By distributing tasks so broadly across people, even though it's not necessary to subsist, we commit ourselves to a more social existence and don't feel so out-of-touch with our nature.

Whatever you think about that, something like this seems to have been going on since internet shopping has driven some sectors of the brick-and-mortar world out of business. Buying stuff online is asocial, impersonal, dull to the senses, and unable to deliver instant gratification. While they may be fine with losing these joys of shopping for books, music, and other entertainment in real life, they would still like to shop for something in that more fulfilling way.

They didn't find it in the big box stores, which unlike record stores and book stores have only done better over the past 10 to 15 years. Although you can get your fix for the occasional impulse buy, most of what these stores sell is not up to giving shoppers the pleasure they used to get from browsing through books or flipping through albums and listening to music. And forget about a social experience and face-to-face interactions.

You never take notice of, let alone acknowledge, the existence of your fellow shoppers at Best Buy or Target. And to cut costs and pass along savings to the consumer, they've outsourced as much as possible to the consumers themselves, including the one relationship that you never would've thought could be mechanized -- the cashier. As with online shopping, the great majority who go along with these new norms aren't bothered by them, but they would still like some part of their buying activities to feel human, where there's something more than consumers and self-scan machines.

Where have people turned? To food shops. As Webvan discovered during the dot-com bubble, nobody is going to rely on the internet for their groceries. Unlike books that can sit in an Amazon warehouse forever, or mp3 files that will always be available to download from iTunes, most food that people buy is perishable. Along the physical-matter vs. immaterial-information spectrum, food is very far in the physical direction. So it cannot be so easily scaled up and mass-distributed, like mp3 files, ensuring that there will always be many food vendors in every neighborhood, while record stores and book stores vanish into thin air.

Unlike the big box stores, most of the for-fun food shops that people visit are intimate enough in size to feel like everyone there, customers and workers alike, are at least loosely part of a single community. Plus, no matter how trivial it may seem, there is still a more personal relationship between the workers and customers in a food place since they are making you something right then and there. And not just throwing a pizza in the microwave, but something with a more human touch like setting the foamed milk just right on top of a couple shots of espresso.

Certainly for routine food purchases most people go to supermarkets or even the Wal-Mart-esque ones like Costco. I'm talking about the food places that people go to in their leisure time. That's about all you see in shopping centers these days -- one food store next to another.

Before, there wasn't as much snobbery and polarization among the food stores and their patrons. In a shopping center, there used to be the sit-down restaurant, the fast food place, and the junk food place.

Now that food stores are almost all that remain, the shopping center now has four sit-down restaurants, several fast food stops, a deli, three junk food places, and two Fifties diners. (Speaking of which, since the hoverboard looks like a no-go for 2015, we at least better see a chain of Cafe 80's.) They can only compete so much on price; usually it devolves into an annoying battle over, e.g., which of the three Mexican places is the most "authentic".

As tiresome as the foodie culture can get sometimes, we should remember that going crazy about food vendors is an understandable response to the death blow that internet and big-box retailers have dealt to a lot of formerly fun places to socialize.


  1. That might be why arts and crafts festivals seem pretty popular these days as well. It's another venue where you can browse through the merchandise and talk with the salesperson.

    Concerning grocery store cashiers, even the human ones have scripts now that they have to follow so it's no better than the self-scan.

  2. Social relations aren't so stratified out here in the Mountain Time Zone, so even at the huge corporate megamarket or Starbucks, the cashiers always make small talk with me, especially if I've been there for awhile.

    The one thing I hate is the line "there's that for ya" when they hand back your card. You hear it over and over, at every retail store, so you become aware that it's just some script, not some new slang phrase organically spreading across the country.

    It's not that single phrase that is the problem, but the awareness that it's just the tip of the scripted iceberg.

  3. Re the scripting of interactions, see my post mindless verbal Taylorism

  4. "Thank you for calling LotsOfBranchesBank…my name is Joan…how may I exceed your expectations today?"

    You can start by wiping that fucking dumbass smile off your rosy fucking cheeks...


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