|Boho dress procured at Illahie boutique... a return to parochial shopping, perhaps?|
The floor space was so cluttered with stuff that you could barely move, but there was something exquisite about finding everything at your fingertips – trousers, shirts, tees, shoes, boots, belts, hats, wallets, Stanley knives... Bisley, King Gee, Polo Ralph Lauren, RM Williams – in that small space.
We walked out $150 poorer feeling chuffed – particularly with the two pairs of pants for the price of one. We shared our anecdote with my father-in-law, who knew the Buxton's name immediately. In small towns, places like that are known by everybody.
Buxton's is like a mini department store, the sort of place that once-upon-a-time attracted regular clientele who came to expect something of its service and reliably sufficient product offering; the unique retail shopping experience requiring limited expenditure of one's mental faculties because there is a limited but quality selection of goods.
The clothing store is part of the community, like the butcher, the post office, the general store. As an entity it is no more or less important than the other stores: it is there to provide practical clothing for the average working man.
I like to shop at places such as this, where the owner's name is familiar and the chances of finding something to your liking are high, particularly as there is no comparative situation in which to measure the goods up against, such as at a shopping mall, which frankly drive me around the bend because everywhere you turn there is something or someone coercing you to spend more than you really ought.
In small communities, or within a boutique store situation, what you see is what you get, but what you get is more than the good itself. It is in the exchange where the true thrill lies. You and your purchase (or intent thereof) are not taken for granted. Small business proprietors (good ones, at least) are grateful for your business, and so too are you for what they provide.
And the proof is in the statistics: in a quiet defiance of tough trading times, small business sales in August increased by 4.7 per cent relative to a year ago, with retail-related business sales growing just short of 2 per cent year on year in the three months to August. Not flashy, but not dismal either.
The sweet savouring of the experience, the delectable enchantment of entering into a shop where you might find something special to wear, to give, to place in your home – the virtue of buying only that which you have the means and need to buy – has been somewhat lost in the madness of the past 20 to 30 years or so. And it's a sad thing, I think, because in the midst all parties have been dehumanised.
And in this situation, where there is a lack of loyalty and reward, shop owners miss out.
"Even though our economy is in good shape, consumers overall don't see the need to spend and they aren't being given any reason to do so, meaning it's more than likely they will continue to hold on to their money," Gary McGrath, acting executive general manager for local business banking at the Commonwealth Bank told Smart Company.
In a cover story titled 'Are You Being Served?', the September issue of CHOICE magazine examines how Australia's bricks-and-mortar retailers stack up in the realm of customer service in an online retail world. The story is hooked on findings by American Express that Australian consumers believe customer service standards have continued to decline over the past three years, while two-thirds of people said they had abandoned a purchase in store because of poor service.
CHOICE sent four shadow shoppers into the retail world to report their findings back to the magazine, rating their experiences according staff member helpfulness and product knowledge, other efforts to close the sale, such as price reduction or added extras, and returns policies. Their findings were not altogether surprising.
At David Jones, whose Sydney city store is attended to be top-hatted doormen, the customer service was found to be "patchy at best", with sales assistants having conversations instead of attending to customers in a timely fashion and avoiding eye contact.
"Emma spent 10 minutes wandering the store she visited before having to ask for help," says CHOICE. "The assistant she found couldn't provide much assistance, telling her that most of the brands were the same as they were all made in China."
Embarrassing, but hardly surprising and most unfortunate, because such incidents add up to many missed opportunities to create positive experiences, which create a ripple effect (felt all the more so in an online world), reflect back on the store's customer rapport overall and add to society's goodness or lack thereof (in the grand scheme of things). A civil society can start on a store's bottom floor.
"No matter how strong the brand is, with a traditional retailer such as Woolworths or David Jones, there are larger forces at play that alter consumer perceptions and behavior and have an impact on the way that the business must operate to remain viable," says Dr Liz Ferrier, senior lecturer in advertising at the University of Queensland.
"Traditional stores have the potential to offer improved customer experiences that online sales are unlikely to be able to simulate. In retail there is increasing awareness of the need to understand the customer better, such as finding ways to know customers, understand the rational and emotional aspects of their experience, and to engage customers more fully and actively, to ‘co-create’ a better service experience."
Co-creation. Yes, that's it, isn't it? A mutual exchange in which both parties might be satisfied with the outcome and the process itself, and have reasonable expectation of having a repeat experience if they are to go to that same store again.
"If retailers understand their customers' needs and preferences, and find ways to enhance the customer experience... they will understand how best to cater to their customers," says Dr. Ferrier. "This amounts to respecting and valuing the customer, who in turn with respect and value the retail business."
I recently bought a dress (pictured above), which has since given me the opportunity to converse with three women who each complimented me on it. The transaction took place on a Friday afternoon in a boutique store in my local community. I had spotted the dress while walking past, took a fancy to it, but found it was not available in my size. I reasoned then that though I liked it, it was not meant to be.
When I returned to the store the following week, the dress had materialised in my size. I put it on lay-by, and looked forward to the day when I could pick it up. On the day I did, I was given a "local's discount", though I intended to pay the full amount. "I am grateful for your business," said the store's owner, Amber.
In such a situation, the whole shopping experience is elevated above mere materialism – which posits you as a slave to the retail machine giving in, unwittingly or willfully, to the desire to please yourself by fluffing up your attire – to an act of sheer delight in the purchase, which might be savoured because your conscience is right and you took more away from the experience than the dress in the bag itself*.
The truly sad thing about the rampant materialism of the developed world is a social climate commensurate with the hedonistic Whos of Whoseville whose behaviour so irked the Grinch. When you act like a careless, reckless, rude, mad-dog spender, it's really only fitting that the stores might treat you that way, too. The customer is always right, as the retail parlance goes.
So if customer behaviours and attitudes have changed, if we have awakened from our spend-happy stupor, as appears to be so since we have taken stock of what "progress" truly means since the GFC, surely retailers must, too?
"In the UK, there's an anticonsumerist movement called Enough," writes Martin Lindstrom in the introduction to Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate our Minds and to Persuade us to Buy. "Its adherents believe that we as a society quite simply consume too much stuff and that our over-consuming culture is partly responsible for many of the social ills that plague our planet, from world poverty to environmental destruction to social alienation."
My recent Buxton's and boutique experiences I compare with a visit to the monolithic Hyperdome Shopping Centre in Loganholme, which has apparently scaled down in recent times. I had to buy something from Big W, so hot-footed it there before closing time. Getting from one end to the other, skidding on the white shiny floors, felt like completing an Olympic marathon. I was puffed on arrival.
The ladies at the store's Service Desk were having a right time of it, trying to do their best by a bloke who had been gifted a DVD player and did not have a receipt but wanted to return it because it was broke. My experience was entirely positive, as a sales assistant who helped to locate a price was affable and candid. Notably, CHOICE magazine gave Big W a "big effort" thumbs up.
My only qualm: I didn't want to use the electronic check-out. Preferring always to speak to people, such as the teen boy who impressed me on my initial purchase at the store's Carindale premises, I am not one for machine interactions. The woman behind me felt the same way and said as much as we were ushered to the electronic devices, much to our dismay.
"I work at a computer all day, I don't want to use one when I go shopping," the woman explained to me. And I heartily agreed, though one might surmise that if you're looking for relational gratification at a retail store something in your life is remiss.
It's tempting to bemoan the big-scale retail projects and elevate the little blokes on high, but there are both positive and negative to be said for either side. And there must be, within this, a responsibility on behalf of the consumer themselves.
While one's personal shopping philosophy dictates where he or she will shop, what he or she will shop for and how much he or she will buy, we should be wise to the influences around us that encourage us to shop in a way that might not necessarily be commensurate with our beliefs: to carve out a unique space in which we can happily negotiate the retail space requires practising "conscious consumption".
In her brilliant little book, Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying?, Martha Rockliff writes, "Lots of young people – and older people, too – are taking a hard look at where their money's going. Some call it 'ethical consuming' or 'socially conscious shopping'. Some just call it 'buying better'. Whatever you like to call it, it's definitely on the rise. People are sick of squeezing their eyes shut like baby birds and letting companies stuff who-knows-what into their gaping gullets. Instead they're asking questions like Who made it? and What's in it? and What's it doing to the earth, to other people, and to me?"
Consciences can no longer be appeased by chucking a few dollars the Salvation Army's way when we sweep through a mall on missions to stuff our wardrobes with all and sundry new things as soon as the new season hits. But, we would be wise to not get all self-righteous. Your position within the framework of the "consumer society" (shamefully, this is what we have become) is entirely your own to cultivate.
It doesn't take a genius to work out that you cannot shop your way to happiness, and that in our self-centred view of consumption others lose out (perhaps that hard-pressed pensioner you know could do with a grocery bag or two), but our culture is so permeated with branding and consuming messages that you'd be hard pressed to see the sense in scaling back when everyone else at the party has a new dress or "the" dress (or my dress).
We are not all brainwashed nincompoops, but our affections can certainly be persuaded in a direction that is not especially good – not only for ourselves, but for mankind overall.
By circumstances geographical, economic, social, cultural and spiritual, my former profligate shopping habits were sufficiently curbed to a point one might call rational. Smarter people than me have managed to maintain their sanity in the face of the shops, averting their gaze to things other than new clothes and such things, and for them, I have a deep admiration.
We have to be choosey about what we let in and form a firm position. Ironically, some fashion magazines that trade in the promotion of goods and staying ahead of the Zeitgeist, woke to the vegan take on environmental consumption before the rest of the world did, and so too vintage shopping and swap-shopping and farmer's markets and "going local" and the like. The GFC, global warming and slow movements have also aided and abetted a more rational approach.
New affections are arising for the thrill of the small, delectable purchase; the rekindling of economist E.F. Schumacher's concept "small is beautiful". In a world where matters of economy have taken precedence over other things, such as doing the wise, friendly and responsibly thing with one's money, like tithing, there is now the beginning of a return to big-thinking on small shopping.
The well-considered purchase. Taking stock of one's spending. A new shopping world order. We are no longer fanatical consuming lunatics (unless you happen to be a fan of Zara which has successfully bewitched young female shoppers in Australia).
There must be a level of personal culpability, but we might also give this context: all this needless, unthinking acquisition seems to have been in keeping with the persuasions of the time – the culture mixed with the human propensity toward thinking of ourselves first.
This goes some way to showing how the will can be swept up in the pace of the human race if the predominant message you are being sent is, "Buy now, pay later" and it agrees with the vision of yourself as the centre of the world, owed a significant favour or two because you are simply alive.
In my experience, inhibitions about materialism come only when you're given sufficient breathing space to regain your equilibrium or a semblance of common sense – particularly challenging if you are immersed in the modern world's equivalent of a sartorial Sodom. The heady space in which fashion magazines reside can be a fatal attraction for some (in more ways than one). But now we are being helped along.
"The reason we can buy $5 t-shirts is because we're caught up in consumerism and don't care about the people who make them," Pastor Andy Coller, speaking on Baptist World Aid's The End of Greed project told me earlier this year.
"I think the GFC did cause a lot of people to stop and think, 'What are we doing here?', we were told greed was good and that buying more stuff would make you happy, but we're no more happy now than in the 1960s when we were buying a third of the stuff we are now. The GFC was a catalyst."
With the changing times, and the rationalisation of the over-stuffed, too-much-stuff retail industry, comes a changing sentiment about the role stores and their staff and owners play in our lives. In their rightful place as players in the social fabric of society, retail stores are responsible for creating places where customers truly want to be: where they feel valued, engaged and rewarded for their choice in choosing your business.
This is why I attempt to buy locally as much as I can – putting dollars into the tills of people in my community who make their living from maintaining nice store fronts to look at, arranging and ordering goods and proferring a selection of things tailored specifically to the needs and wants of locals (with discounts!).
We, the customer, ought to reflect and enact upon our personal retail responsibilities and accept some of the blame for the great disdain (or, at least, antipathy) we now seem to project upon the retail world for our personal neglect of charity, goodwill and community in exchange for subservience to the dictations of big corporations.
When the process of shopping takes on a sort of choreographic quality, where all the elements seem to come together seamlessly – the dress, the climate, the shop attendant, the small allowance in the finances – it's more plain to see that forming a moral philosophy on shopping is as much for our own joy as environmental sustainability, global economic fairness and the resilience of communities.
*I generally find that if I have been inclined to shop at the wrong time (like when I'm out of sorts and looking for comfort in the incorrect place) the result is either sartorially disastrous or financially guilt inducing (usually a letter from my Compassion child will arrive).
The Occasional Shopper: High Variety (in Green Stilettos)
Fashademic: The great online shopping disconnect
Greenies in Stilettos, How to save the world without really trying (in 5 easy steps) by Carolyn Donovan, 2012
Girl With a Satchel