Shopping – a force for the greater good

Some say retailing caused the credit crunch, but Rodney Fitch celebrates its contribution to global employment, wellbeing and democracy

Two years ago, on 16 September 2008, Lehman Brothers, 160 years old and one of the world’s great banking institutions, collapsed and filed for bankruptcy, thereby triggering a global economic meltdown from which none of us has been immune and from which we still struggle to escape to this day.

Over the past couple of years, thousands of businesses have gone bust, millions have become unemployed, individuals and nations alike have been ruined and a great deal of social misery and unrest has been caused.

As this economic tsunami engulfed the world, authors and publishers rushed into print to pinpoint the causes of the disaster and identify guilty parties. Greedy bankers, complacent and incompetent regulators, venal politicians – all stand accused.

One of the whackier theories, offered up by Neal Lawson in his book All Consuming, is that it was caused by shopping. So while you and I thought we were simply buying a new pair of shoes, a bicycle or the weekly groceries, Lawson identifies shopping as the virus and shoppers as the carriers who destroyed the global economic landscape.

Of course, this leftish anti-consumerism is a nonsense, and I only dwell upon it here as a sort of background to frame the importance that shopping, or, in its wider context, retailing, has come to assume in the world economic order. Consider these three points:
1 – In 2009, retailing represented around 21 per cent of world gross domestic product. The economic downturn has slowed retail growth but, as things improve, this figure will climb, driven by the developing nations. Imagine it – a fifth of the commercial activity in the world is, well, shopping.
2 – The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is also the world’s largest non-governmental employer and, depending on how you measure things, both the world’s largest business and one of China’s largest trading partners. Meanwhile, in the UK the retail sector has become the largest creator of jobs.
3 – Amazon innovated the online shopping format, and the enthusiasm with which consumers worldwide have embraced this new channel means that this company, less than two decades old, may well displace Walmart as the world’s largest retail business in the not too distant future, ushering in through technology nothing less than a revolution in both retailing and the shopping experience.

Such scale is not only impressive, but fundamental to the world economic order. You can’t have a thriving manufacturing or agricultural sector without a concomitant retail distributive sector. And in this way, retailing plays a much larger role in a nation’s social framework than just economically. Consider also these four points:
1 – Research indicates that when measuring ’wellbeing’ across diverse nationalities, ’going shopping’ has never been out of the top five preferred activities during the past 15 years.
2 – The growth of urban dwelling is a contemporary fact and urban development in the modern world is often more successful when retail-led. Indeed, the retail cultures of shopping and hospitality are often the glue, particularly in older city centres, that can hold a regenerative mixed-use development together. Look at what’s happening in Liverpool, or is set to happen in Stratford after London 2012.
3 – Overseas, in the developing world, the rise and rise of shopping is a social and commercial necessity to parallel the industrial growth that will lift millions from poverty.
4 – Shopping transcends politics, geographies and languages, to the extent that the distributive nature of retailing becomes a global asset, allowing global citizens access to the world’s goods and services, in a manner, form and delivery mechanism of their choice.

Thus does retailing become a form of democracy at work. Indeed, it might be said that in a demand economy, where served by an innovative, competitive retailing industry, it is the only true form of democracy that is available to the citizen consumer, providing, as it can, choice, value and convenience, through multiple channels, methodologies and time frames that are increasingly determined by the consumer. Whither design in all of this? Well, the ascent of shopping has been good to the creative industries.

There is no doubt that the full panoply of design is to be found in the shopping experience, from advertisements to websites, and from packaging to environments. Mary Portas even uses retail design to create entertaining prime-time TV. Billions of pounds and dollars have, and will continue to be, invested, and tens of millions have been earned in fees. Creative businesses have been built, and reputations made.

Is there any end to it? Should we designers wither under Lawson’s critical gaze? I think not, for retailing, being the most competitive of industries, is anchored in innovation, and since design is activated by innovation, the creative mind and parallel designing skills have much to offer the world of shopping and the citizen consumer.

Add to this competitive dimension the bottom up demand for an improved, that is to say more efficient, more varied and often more ’Western’ shopping experience from the developing nations in Asia, Russia, South America and elsewhere, and those designers, passionate about helping to realise an improved life experience, in this case through retail culture, will find there is much to do for years to come.

Rodney Fitch is chairman of WPP integrated marketing strategy group The Hub and Professor of Retail Design at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Mumbai

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