Thinking Out Loud

March 19, 2018

Cultural Shifts: The End of “Going Shopping”

The Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, OH is an example of a once-bustling center of activity that now sits completely abandoned. (YouTube: Chris Condon)

The impending shutdown of Toys-R-Us announced last week serves as another reminder of how the way we acquire consumer goods has shifted in the internet age. In the process however, I feel something is being lost. Here are a few benefits of loading up the family in the car or van on a shopping excursion.

Exercise – Getting some fresh air, and walking the aisles of the mall or department stores is always to be preferred to just sitting on the couch watching Netflix. I found it also interesting that large homes are now being constructed to fill their respective building lots to the point where there are no backyards. The assumption is that you’re going to do everything indoors. This can’t be healthy.

Delayed Gratification – We raised our kids to expect that a trip to certain stores might result in us leaving empty-handed; carrying neither bags nor boxes. We had little money to spend, but it cost little to look. Sometimes the seeds of desire would be planted that would result in birthday or Christmas gifts, but there was never the sense that we were going to load up shopping carts with everything in sight.

Interactive Purchasing – We could ask questions as the salesperson qualified our needs. Are the extra features used by customers? Are many of these units returned? Is this compatible with another product we already own? Do we really need the extended warranty? (Some sales people were biased on that last one.) It was a process of give-and-take conversation that resulted in a better fit with little need for returns or exchanges.

Supporting Local Business – We knew that at least some of our money stayed in our city. Even with a chain store, if it’s franchised, you’re still supporting the local franchise owner. If it’s completely corporately owned, you’re at least providing local jobs, meaning wages for your immediate neighbors.

Exposure to Wider Range of Products – To get our youngest the set of pencil crayons the teacher had requested we had to walk past the fabric softener, and the set of socket wrenches, and the dog chow, and the snow tires. For the kids, every one of these was a lesson — even if nothing was spoken — in the bigger world and how it works.

Social Contact – In the late 1960s it was accepted that the shopping mall had become the new town square. It was the place to see and be seen; to run into neighbors and friends and coworkers and fellow-students. In a large city, this included people from a more distant past who, without the benefit of computers in that era, you had completely lost contact with. This was often followed with an agreement to get together soon for more social connection. As a Christian, I found this provided contexts where I could share my faith. (See also the update below*)

The Quest – Granted this is similar to the first point, but sometimes you simply need a destination; a place to go in search of a desired object. To this extent, life is like a movie. You had the need. You drove to the mall. You found a parking spot. You located the store. They had the item in stock. You made the purchase. You couldn’t remember where you had parked! There was story; on a small quest the hero had gone on a mission and returned triumphant.

I know I’ve left some things out, but as shopping becomes something we do sitting at screens and shopping carts become virtual instead of physical I just think we’ve lost something. In the process, we’re directing the profits to nameless, faceless corporations — one in particular comes to mind — but we’re also robbing ourselves of the personal profit that comes with interacting in the wider reality.

Did I leave anything out? Anything else you feel has been lost in the switch to online shopping?

*Update: This was left as a comment by Mark from England shortly after the blog published, but I don’t want any of you to miss it:

People who live alone might not see or speak to anyone for days on end. Visiting the local shops might be the only chance they have to interact with people. Not just people they know who they might meet but a friendly word from a sales assistant, a smile even, might relieve the crippling loneliness that they feel. And hey, who knows, they might make a new friend who might visit them from time to time. Isolation is not our natural state.

Good point, Mark. Where do those people find a replacement for those interactions?

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