- The world of commercial activity where goods and services are bought and sold
- A marketplace where groceries are sold
In this time of globalisation, where the word “market” means the entire world, wouldn’t it be nice to take a trip down memory lane to a time when life was simpler, to a time when you could stroll between different stalls selling all sorts of produce, crafts, and hand-made products at your leisure without shop assistants shouting: “Are you all right there? Do you need any help? Ok, if there’s something you need, just let me know.”
I don’t know about you but there’s something about the shops these days that make me not want to go in! They all seem to be the same. On each high street there’s five mobile phone shops, twenty fashion stores (all part of a chain), four mini-supermarkets, a spattering of estate agents, and maybe the odd computer store. Each shop is ambiently heated to either way too cold or way too hot, and upon entering you will be greeted by either excessively loud music or “shop fm” where the stores have a pretend radio station welcoming you to a world of bargains. At least in the uk we are saved from “spruikers” (common in australia), who stand outside the shop with a microphone and an amplifier, trying to tempt you in to the store.
Each store has a million different products, it doesn’t matter if they are selling shampoo or tv’s. The choice is endless. Rows upon rows of heavily packaged – usually imported – products, and advertising banners hung everywhere to point us to this weeks bargains.
I have to admit, I did use to like it. It was all quite exciting going out on a saturday with all my hard earned money ready for a spending spree, heading out in the car to the big shopping centre where I could comfortably park my car inside and shop in style without getting a single drop of rain on me!
As I walked into the centre I would be enchanted by the shiny floors (apparently created like that so you don’t have to look down to watch where you put your feet, and can concentrate on looking at the shops), and the bright twinkling lights. So many shops to look at, so much stuff to buy. I used to travel back to my car with my arms laden with goodies, filled to the brim with tasty burgers, chips and cola, impatient to get home so I could unwrap everything and get out in the evening to show off all the new clothes I had bought.
But this topic isn’t about consumerism, or buying things you don’t need just because they are there and you’ve got your credit card. What I want to talk to you about today is the lost connection between the community and local producers.
With the demise of local markets and locally owned shops, and the rise of mega shopping stores, where each product is individually packaged and “sealed for quality and security” the local businesses have found themselves on the outside of a new globally controlled market, and subsequently, out of business.
Many of you may argue that if the public don’t want the markets and the local shops, then they should be left to disappear and replaced with something they do want. But do the public – that’s you and me – really want these shopping centres? Isn’t it because we have become lazy, because we don’t want to have to walk more than ten feet in order to buy the goods we want, and only if we can drive there? Think about it. We say we are so busy that we need these types of stores, but we didn’t have them before, and was life so terrible?
“What?” says you. “The service was appalling, the shops were never open when you wanted them, and even when they were, they had a terrible range of products to choose from, and they weren’t cheap. Now we have shops open almost 24 hours a day, they look nice, they smell nice, they are cheap, the staff are friendly, there is a huge range of products and they are pretty cheap. There’s no competition.”
Do you agree? Has the era of the local trader died? Are locally produced products no longer wanted? Let me ask you another question. Would you prefer to buy lettuce which has been grown organically in a field two miles away from the stall, or would you prefer to buy it in a massive supermarket where it has made a journey of several thousand miles, and may have been washed in a country where water resources are already scarce?
When you look at products on the shelf, like salad, have a look at the country of origin, you may find it originated in africa. Don’t you think it is sad that we are buying products we can grow in our back gardens, or greenhouses, and people in adjacent countries to the lettuce’s country of origin are starving? Then they ship the food to a country that doesn’t need their produce? In fact, the only reason we buy it is because it’s cheaper than local produce, or available out of season.
In many towns and cities around the world, the market is still the main place for trade. You can buy anything there, not just fruit and veg. Locally made furniture, rugs, clothing, and items for the home (although you do have to check that the products are local, not just imported from china, and resold on a market stall). There are so many different products sold, and if you have ever been to any of the big market cities in the world you can feel the vibrancy of it.
It is alive with people bargaining. 180, no 150, no! Ok, 120. Sold! It is fast moving, the goods don’t stay on the shelves for months at a time. There is the added bonus of being able to deal with real people, not staff who are trained to behave and talk exactly as the corporation wishes them too. These are people who say what they want, and do what they want. You may not like them, because they do not show you the same “respect” that you get in your fancy shops, but that “respect” is false. It’s an illusion, created by the companies to make you believe the shop assistant is really interested in you. In reality what they are interested in is finishing for the night!
Shopping at markets and small local stores may take longer than your average mega-super-mart but it is supposed to, it is a different kind of experience, and the people are different. Try a local store again and give them support, or better still, start your own; but if your main motivation is to be in the top 500 rich list in the uk, please think again.
Local business, and especially market business, is community based. It is a place where real people use real skills to make the products. You may not value this skill, but in an era where everything is made by machine, isn’t it nice to have something hand-made? Let me tell you a story.
I was shopping with some friends at a local market once when I noticed a perfume stall; the lady introduced herself, and asked us if we would like to try some perfumes and aftershaves she had made herself. One smelled beautiful, and I asked my friend if she was going to buy it. “No.” she said, “I’m not paying that much for a ‘non-label’ perfume,” and anyway, it doesn’t even come in a box!” Right there. Right then, I noticed it. Not only did she not trust the product because it didn’t come in an attractive gift box, but because it wasn’t some big name brand, she wasn’t prepared to pay for the woman’s time and effort to produce it.
I then realised that shopping at these big stores had little to do with convenience and price, it was a status thing. People actually liked to be seen carrying the bags from the designer stores, so that others could see that they had not only been in there, but had purchased something! That’s why they wouldn’t buy a hand made product from a market – it didn’t come with a label. Who would be impressed by the product they had bought? No one. And shopping these days is more about the bag than the actual item it contains.
We like to buy into the illusion of the stores with the shiny floors, ambient music, respectful staff, and glossy bags. We actually like it. That’s why we don’t buy at the local stores anymore. They have not invested in special flooring, lighting, and advanced sales techniques for their staff. The shops aren’t painted in the latest fashionable colours to tempt us. They just do what they say they do. They sell things.
Last year, I went into a local hardware supplier on the west coast of ireland. I could not believe my eyes. There was stuff everywhere. I couldn’t walk through the aisles without tripping over something. They had a lot of products, but it wasn’t the same as walking in to one of the chain stores. There, the products would be organised according to type, big signs overhead pointing you to the correct area, no mess, only shiny floors! I realised that it was that I liked. I had become so accustomed to shopping in the large corporate stores that I now disliked the local stores because they failed to conform to the idea of what a store should look like. I was almost about to walk out, when an older man, presumably the owner stopped me, and said, “can I help you with anything?” I told him I was looking for a bicycle lock and with that he said “Give me a second, I’ll just get you one.”
In my haste to find the product I was looking for, pay and leave without speaking to anyone, I forgot that there is still something that exists which is called “customer service.” Not the “trained” staff in the big stores, but people who were genuinely interested in you and what your requirements were.
“This is real shopping,” I thought to myself. We have become so used to not talking to strangers (just in case) that any interaction on a level deeper than “that’s £34.50, cash or credit card?” seems intrusive! That’s why these big stores work. You don’t have to talk to anyone. No one engages you in any conversation, but that is what we are missing in this clinical modern life.
You may remember tv programmes, where you’d see old ladies go down to the local shop for a chin wag with the owner – the purchase of the goods being almost secondary… No? Well apparently it used to happen in real life too; and it wasn’t just old people, young people did too! They actually knew the people in the local store, or the market stall, because guess what? The people working there were part of the community. They lived in the town, unlike today where everyone commutes and is from somewhere else.
No wonder we don’t like talking to people. They are strangers. They are not from the surrounding area, and we have nothing in common with them, that’s why we like to shop as quickly as possible and get out without having to talk. Do you see? Is that clear to you?
So what can we do about it? Do we want to do anything about it? I do. I would like to see local products that have been made with local skills back in our homes. No more flat pack wardrobes from half way around the world. A real wardrobe – you may have to save up for – made from sustainable forest wood, which won’t start falling to bits in a couple of years. I would like to see local produce being sold at markets again, and people prepared to pay the correct price for these items, even though they don’t come in a shiny bag. I would like to see, real local stores, selling goods that local people want. That doesn’t mean the stores don’t have to look nice or smell nice either; just because it is a local store won’t make it attract people, it has to compete with the chain stores.
And finally, we have to shift our minds about what shopping really is. Is it a necessary activity to buy things we need or want, or is it a leisure activity all on its own? This addiction to shopping is not one of the greatest achievements of the human race, and all it does is use resources we can barely afford to waste.
Local shopping and markets cut down on the amount of road and air miles product has had to travel, which reduces the amount of carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere. Because it is made locally, it does not require the volume of packaging necessary to keep it intact, thereby reducing packaging, which reduces the amount of trees that need to be cut down, and the amount of plastic (which comes from petrochemicals, which come from oil) that needs to be used. Buying locally made products support the local community, because you are supporting local employment which local people spend in their local community! Is this making any sense to you at all?
Buying local is good for the environment, good for local business, good for the community, and ultimately good for you and me. Let’s give it a go. We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
By alan macmillan orr
‘the natural mind – waking up’