Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

You can't get measured for a bra or get your hair done online

Many predictions made about the future are unsafe or untrue. Things rarely turn out as predicted because unpredictable factors intervene. But one prediction being confidently affirmed is that, by 2018, shopping online will be treble what it is today and real shops will decline concomitantly.

Britain, Scandinavia and Germany are already big website shoppers and every time I enter a Sainsbury's supermarket, I am handed a little docket telling me how much I would save on the purchase price if I ordered via my computer rather than stepping in to the store.

The future for retail, it seems, will be on the screen. The tendency for ever more online shopping is also evident in the closed shutters and vacant premises in the high street.

It's sad to see formerly bustling towns where lovely little local businesses have closed and 'to let' signs have replaced sandwich boards.

Many are victims of the recession, but the switch to internet shopping is also part of the picture. Few book shops can compete with Amazon and a town that has a real, live bookshop today should treasure it.

Some 82% of people in the UK and 77% in Germany made web purchases last year, but the Irish are a little more reluctant to buy everything online – only 57% of people there made web purchases.

The southern European countries – Italy, Greece and the Iberian peninsula – are also below the European average of 59%, although the Spanish online market is predicted to grow at a faster rate in the future. I am sure online shopping is here to stay and wise retailers will keep a careful eye on the development of these customer habits.

And yet I think there are good reasons why real-life shopping – actually going in to a shop – will survive, and in many cases, even thrive.

The clue to this lies in some studies done about loneliness among older people carried out by the charity Age Concern.

These reports revealed that while social workers urged old people living alone to 'go online' for their shopping and retail needs, the oldies themselves felt rather negative about the exercise. They said it made them feel lonely.

Yes, they could master the techniques of accessing the supermarket chains for all their needs, but what they actually missed was going out, entering a shop, browsing around, and talking to other human beings in the course of the purchase.

Their shopping wasn't just about acquiring purchases, it was also about interaction. It was even, for some individuals, about making the effort to get out of the house.

If Ireland, and the Latin countries of Europe, are less inclined to be enthusiastic web shoppers, is it partly because these societies are generally more sociable?

In Mediterranean countries, people have a richer street and community life, meeting in cafes and squares and piazzas and also in the course of the evening paseo (helped by the climate, of course).

In Ireland, there has always been a strong tradition of meeting and greeting and general gregariousness. Convenient as online shopping may be, it deprives people of the pleasures of getting out and about and gossiping with the neighbours.

Shopping is, actually, one of the most sociable of human activities and has always been. Even during the Crusades, ladies sometimes accompanied the warriors to Jerusalem for the shopping – "My dear, the souks are absolutely fabulous," we can almost hear Eleanor of Aquitaine say.

Pilgrimages, since Chaucer's time, have been opportunities for shopping – the trinkets flogged at Lourdes are in a long tradition of holiness going serenely along with retail therapy.

My ma seamlessly combined visiting the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and the exquisite little chapel of the Miraculous Medal at the nearby Rue du Bac. As for street markets, what a divine opportunity to browse for quirky little bargains, to chat and, for those so inclined, to haggle. How could you get such experiences online? You can't – and it's for that reason I believe that website shopping will never replace real shopping.

And it's not just the social side of shopping that will always have a fundamental appeal.

While there are many items that can be conveniently ordered online – baked beans, standard pieces of furniture, electronic goods – there are others that are better suited to real-life shopping.

I believe shoe shops will always thrive: there's a certain pleasure in trying on six, eight or 10 pairs of shoes or boots to see which ones make your ankles look thinner.

I think there'll always be a place for fresh food shops – the lovely bakeries and patisseries we see in France and the coffee shops that have proliferated even during the recession.

Specialist food shops like cheese creameries will, I'm sure, remain. Pharmacies and beauty shops will always provide a service because shoppers may also want advice – from a human being, not a website.

There will always be a demand for gift shops and specialist shops – a lingerie shop will measure you properly for a bra and a knowledgeable wine salesperson will be able to give advice and guidance on vintages. And you can't get your hair done online.

We all buy some stuff via the web, but real shopping will never die because it is so much part of social intercourse.

Shopping is communication as well as trade. Don't let the shopping habit die.

'For older people it isn't just about acquiring purchases, it's about interaction and getting out of the house'

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