By Jon Stobart, Professor of History, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Shopping in a time of coronavirus
As we enter the eighth week of lockdown, our ability to visit shops and engage in the cultural, social and economic transactions that this involve is perhaps beginning to ease. In recent weeks, going to the shops has become a functional and often frustrating experience at best – involving queues to get in, gaps on shelves, and a close orchestration of movement through the shop to ensure social distancing. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of non-food purchases are being made online. All this is very different from how we shopped 3 months ago, let alone 3 years or 30 years.
In some ways, the social and geographical restrictions imposed on us all as a result of coronavirus have heightened and accelerated trends that were already apparent, with footfall declining on many high streets and a series of famous retailers going into administration – or being rescued at the last minute – as consumers switch to online retailers. In this, department stores – once the flagship of retailing and the anchor to most shopping malls – have fared particularly badly: House of Fraser and Debenhams, for example, have both closed numerous stores as their place as the “universal providers” being taken by Amazon.
The future of shopping
We might speculate about the future of retailing and shopping, and about the fate of iconic brands and the vitality of high streets. Not so long ago, it seems, a blend of online and bricks & mortar seemed the best route for many retailers, whilst town-centre managers were keen to emphasise the unique experience of visiting their location. Now things seem less clear: has our recent experience engrained a growing preference for online shopping or will we see a revived desire for real experiences and relationships with people and places, and a return to shopping on the high street and the mall?
And in the past
But we might also recall the past of shops and shopping. This means recognising the part they have played in the development of our town and city centres, most of which are still dominated by the architecture and infrastructure of shops. This built environment was created over decades and even centuries as successive waves of retail innovation have stamped their own mark, from the department stores and arcades of the Victorian era, through the spread of chain stores in the early twentieth century to the more recent malls and retail parks. Change has always been apparent and competition has always been present: in the late nineteenth century, department stores that now seem like retail dinosaurs, soon to be extinct, caused a chorus of complaints from small retailers who saw them as leviathans swallowing up their customer base and destroying traditional modes of retailing. Fast forward and we hear similar concerns about chain stores that, by the late twentieth century were blamed for making one high street indistinguishable from the next – both in terms of their architecture and the goods and experiences available.
In all this change, shops remained central to our daily and weekly routines both as places to acquire the things that we needed and wanted, and as places to go. Just as they shaped the appearance our town centres, they also shaped our daily lives, as shoppers, browsers or workers. It is no surprise, then, that shops and shopping can be central to our memories and identities, and our associations with place. There is a danger of looking back through rose-coloured spectacles, but it is clear that shops are remembered, often fondly, as places we visited with parents or friends and as landmarks in our journeys through the city.
100 Manchester shops
It was these associations that lay behind a project run by Jon Stobart and Michala Hulme through 2018 and 2019. Our aim was to recover some of the memories that people had of shops in and around Manchester: working, shopping or just looking. The project tapped into a real affection for some surprising places, from toy shops and fashion boutiques to Italian ice-cream parlours and tripe restaurants. It culminated in an exhibition in Manchester Central Library that ran from February to April 2019 – an exhibition that we have remounted online here https://mcphh.org/manchester-in-100-shops/