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"Shopping is a social undertaking"

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What did you get for Christmas? And in the sales? Ooh, lovely! And — at the risk of sounding impertinent — HOW did you get them?

In the run-up to Christmas, as I walked down my increasingly desolate high street — now with so many empty shops that it looks like a gap-toothed grimace — I noticed the roads were filled with delivery vans, far more than is usual even for the festive season. Putting together these two facts, it was no surprise to hear this week that the online shopping tipping point may finally have been reached. Boxing Day was the biggest ever online shopping day in etail (‘etail’! I like it!) history. We collectively spent 13 million hours making 96 million visits to shopping websites, up from 80 million in 2010

There have been other signs that point-and-click is taking over from bus-and-town-centre shopping. Booksellers complain about customers coming into their shops, looking through their stock and then buying whatever catches their fancy cheaper from Amazon. Camera shops in the US have grown so frustrated with people coming in and filleting the place for ideas and advice before sauntering back to their home computers to make the actual purchase that some have started imposing ‘explanation fees’.

Experts are predicting that the online shopping trend will continue in the age of austerity, as the stay-athome mentality grows and we consume less overall and search harder for bargains when we do buy — all of which is best served by the internet.

But is shopping really just about acquisition and bargain-hunting? If it were merely something we did to meet our genuine and specific needs (“Kettle broken — must buy new kettle”) as cheaply as possible then yes, there would be nothing to stop online retailing dominating completely. In fact, I’d have expected it to have happened already. If shopping was merely the scratching of the itch for novelty and acquisition, online would and should already be the clear winner. You can buy a lot more in a lot shorter time via computer than you can on foot. I’ve proved this many times, usually late at night, and slightly depressed, on the ever-cheering etsy.com. It does, after all, take a long time to walk to America from south-east London.

If it all moves online, what on earth will we do with our time? Will shops come to act as giant display cases?

But shopping is something more than the sum of these parts. For most of us, a lot of it is a social undertaking; the peg on which to hang a day out and lunch with friends. Which isn’t to say that the thrill of getting something new or hunting down a bargain isn’t a part of it, but it is far from the whole. The reinvention of shopping as a cross-class leisure activity has happened within our own lifetimes. You can discern this from the incredulous cries given by our mothers when we say we’re hitting the high street on Saturday – “What! Again? But you went last week!” (best to bite your tongue and not say “Yes, and at every lunchtime in between ’n’ all” otherwise they tend to have minor but inconvenient strokes). It’s a state of affairs that requires cheap goods, general affluence and — if you like — a certain moral laxity when faced with the chance to acquire more, much, much more make-up, clothing, books, DVDs or whatever is your chosen delight than you need or could even use in a lifetime.

If it all moves online, what the hell will we do with our time? Will high streets play host only to restaurants and cafes where people meet to coo fondly over pictures of their latest buys and the overnight delivery van drivers buy breakfast? Will other outlets follow the camera shops’ example and start charging before they hand over their precious expertise and will we end up with the bizarre situation of buying intangible things in the real world and tangible things in cyberspace? If I were a betting woman, I’d put money on bricks-and-mortar shops coming to act like giant display cases, where you pay a fee to go in and examine the merchandise of multiple retailers (who jointly bear the cost of running this 3D enterprise) — feel the heft of a hardback, see the true blue of a pair of jeans or check the details no website can ever tell you, like whether that bag’s shoulder strap will not forever slide off the shoulder of your favourite top – before you go home (or to a console in the shop corner, perhaps — hey, I’m getting quite into this! This could really work!) to buy.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an increasingly strange new world in 2012. And I bet I still can’t find the right tights anywhere.

What do you think? Do you agree with Lucy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Main picture credit: Rex Features

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