In Search of Authenticity: How the Web is Remixing the High Street
Yesterday news broke that well-known and long-standing British music retailer HMV is undergoing administration. There's a chance the chain will pull through, but for now, as outlets refuse to honour millions of gift vouchers bought over the Christmas period, things look decidedly dicey.
And by close of business last Friday, another well-known High Street retailer, photography specialist Jessops, had announced that it would be shutting up shop entirely.
Particularly in the case of HMV, however, the casual public outpouring of muted regret, a kind of muffled, "oh, dear me, that's a bit of a shame, I used to buy CDs there when I was a kid," has emanated across Twitter. The Telegraph pronounced the situation as "sad but inevitable" and it's only fair to point out that these two brands are just the latest in a long line of also-rans defeated by escalating competition from electronic commerce.
"People just don't go to shops that much any more. The High Street has been digitised"
People just don't go to shops that much any more. The High Street has, over the last 15 years, been almost completely digitised. What was once finite, physical and diurnal is now infinite, digital and 24/7. As supermarkets swallowed the post-war network of corner-shops, so have price-slashing online warehouses like Amazon assimilated late 20th Century High Street consumerism.
Shortly before Christmas, while looking up digital SLR prices, I couldn't help but notice the massive "discounts" on RRP Amazon were offering on practically all models by Canon, Nikon, Olympus and others. I mean that they were making them available for literally hundreds of pounds cheaper than many competitors. Although Jessops offered some good reductions and combo deals too, it's obvious that they found it difficult to stay in the ring with such a ruthless opponent.
As well as the obvious differences in cost for the consumer, the luxury of choice and the speed of transactions (regardless of delivery time, which we have shown en masse is rarely ever an issue), the online retail boom has revealed that customer service on Twitter or via chat services is often far superior to in-store or over-the-phone equivalents. Similarly, we've been able to make wish lists, exhaustive price comparisons and track purchase histories online, feeding the contemporary desire to do everything with a pinch of data.
For items which we do not need to hold in our hands before we purchase them, the web has made us realise that there are many benefits to buying by thumbnail pictures and customer reviews alone. In fact, it has thrown into stark relief the concept that many things we buy (DVDs, household products, accessory clothing etc.) are best bought with the click of a button.
One of many cavernous warehouses owned by Amazon, from which tens of thousands of products are shipped to customers all over the world on a daily basis.
So if the shop is no longer somewhere where purchase transactions are paramount, what, if anything, does matter now? In the future, will all shopping be done online? There are technological limitations to that idea, but they may well be overcome. At the moment there is no substitute for trying on a pair of jeans before you commit to laying down £40 for them, but that may well change with 3D scanning technology which could pick out the perfect fit from an online selection that is bound, somewhere, to have your size.
As we move towards such a future, the High Street finds itself in unchartered waters. Many High Streets in Britain for example are currently blighted by empty shop fronts, derelict outlets and unreasonably high rent. This is not just a product of the recession, it's also a direct consequence of the revolution in retail which has swept the globe along phone lines and wireless network signals.
But shopping districts are not being completely deserted. There is the potential that this wave of brand destruction is leaving in its wake intriguing ideas about what shops and cafes could offer in order to compete with the Internet in a spatial, experiential sense. The price war is a battle which has already been decided in the web's favour. But as the web has grown, its users have begun to express a yearning for something which, however absurdly, they describe as "more real" or "more authentic."
Instagram provides a clue to this trend. As does what I'd like to refer to from now on as boutique revivalism. By boutique revivalism I mean initiatives which seek to revive bygone industries, products or services but in a purportedly "independent" or "boutique" format today. From thriving second-hand record shops to pop-up cinemas or cafés crammed full of kitsch, the simple idea that one goes to an establishment to spend time and be entertained, over and above making a specific purchase, is how small ventures have tried to insist that they have a role to play in a digital age. While not particular to the Internet era, they have certainly found new meaning here.
"By boutique revivalism I mean initiatives which seek to revive bygone industries, products or services but in a purportedly 'independent' format today"
These little businesses stress authenticity over convenience, style over cost and nostalgia over commerce. What's fascinating is that this is all an elaborate fabrication. The suggestion that these places are more real or genuine that an online business is completely untrue, not least because they have been so clearly constructed to evoke nostalgia, to suggest wear and tear or to emphasise the analogue in a world where such styles are anything but authentic. Rather, they are convenient fantasies we choose to indulge in as a means of proving to ourselves that we are still "in touch", still "sincere", still primarily a "face-to-face" person.
There is simply no arguing with the fact that these boutique ventures, like Café El Paso in Shoreditch with its rustic, "reclaimed" exterior, are textbook examples of the hyperreal in action.
This wonderful article by Mark Gillem entitled, "Make Believe Main Streets: Hyperreality and the Lifestyle Centre" tackles the specific and extreme subject of lifestyle centres - miniature towns and high streets which have been built from the ground up, like a theme park attraction, to feel like old-world shopping districts (but with acres of parking spaces tucked behind the traditional barber-shop and grocers).
These complexes are different to the boutiques I am concerned with here. As Gillem notes, "they are hyperreal manifestations that consume the prototype they are meant to emulate." In the situation I am describing, however, the web has consumed the High Street prototype and while emulating that, the High Street itself becomes a space in which further emulation, this time of traditionalism and tactile experiences, fills the visible void left in city streets by failing retailers to whom we were once so loyal.
The lifestyle centre is a neat package for the analyst of the hyperreal, but it is an American invention and the industrialisation of "authentic experiences" is perhaps a little too obviously plastic. Still, it has clever analogues in Britain. Take, for example, the current trend of large firms owning coffee shops which fallaciously present themselves in a boutique or "independent" guise.
While on the one hand boutique revivalism can be criticised for being a shallow and affected retaliation against the supposedly unsatisfying digitalness of our age (look out for the abundant free wifi in all those quirky cafés); the promise of revitalising consumer experiences via secret cocktail bars or ad hoc street performances is hardly a negative prospect for the otherwise blighted state of the contemporary High Street.
A curious tension, then, exists between the web and experiential consumerism which defines itself as unique or impossible to imitate online. They claim to be at odds with one another, but really they are mutually dependent.
It is certainly my prediction that over the next decade, the vast majority of retailers who today still have High Street outlets, will see their shops go bust unless they digitise quickly and effectively.
But will boutique revivalism catch on in a big way? Will central districts of the future actually be enjoyable places to spend one's weekend? On Twitter, someone suggested that HMV could have played the boutique game by offering better vinyl selections or even giving away free record players to endear customers. It's difficult to say if initiatives like that would have changed anything about the company's financial fortunes, but the mere fact that this idea came up is proof that there is an appetite for such "innovation".
These new boutiques often emphasise a potent mixture of socialising and entertainment. Note also here the familiar tropes of rustic table top and chalk-board menu.
Ultimately, I think people want some of their purchasing to be cost-effective and simply efficient. But on occasion they also want to feel like there are brands with which they can have a more emotional and rewarding relationship. Boutique revivalists encourage a sense of the "local" as "locale", and invite one to think of their outlets as offering something more "bespoke". The increased popularity of that very word in recent years is yet another indicator of a drive to emphasise quality and speciality in certain specific circumstances, despite the parallel rise of one-size-fits-all e-commerce.
What's so amusing about this evolution in consumerism is how fantasies, disguising themselves as the grittiest of realities, have quietly crept in to our towns and cities while the heartbeat of the retail economy continues to move online.
That exquisite motion, that key to inspiring innovation, is why economic upheavals are like the wildfires of our culture. Many do lose out, and the thousands who would be left unemployed in the event of HMV's closure would certainly be justified in having a pessimistic outlook. But equally, the conceit that we can challenge a corporate and commercialised world is somehow irresistible.
This paradox of fabricated authenticity, this foolish belief that there actually is some other, grass roots option, continues to enchant.
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