Posted by: Johan Normark | August 17, 2009

Some of the worst places in the world

I have not much inspiration right now so I simply write about something influenced by yet another chapter in Peter Englund’s book Tystnadens historia. The post has some relevance for how materialities affect people in some of the worst places on this planet. Before you continue reading this you should know that I hate shopping. Malls, department stores and supermarkets fill me with discomfort as I know it will take hours of waiting, testing, queuing, etc. So, how did we end up with these dreadful places that have affected much of our way of living? Will a future archaeologist see any of the agony some of the contemporary people feel in these halls of commerce?

The first stores emerged in the middle of the 19th century. In contrast to older exclusive shops a variety of goods were gathered under one roof in these stores. The commodities were often inexpensive and had specified prices which meant that people no longer had to haggle (however, this does not apply for department stores targeting easily fooled tourists in contemporary Beijing). People were not forced to buy something. They could simply walk around and see the goods that previously had been hidden.

People, and particularly retailers, were skeptical of these early stores. It was at the turn of the 20th century that the supermarket had a major breakthrough. They formed a new commercial order that was created by the 1890’s overproduction crisis when supply seldom followed demand. Things were rather created for which needs had to be invented. Advertising made people aware that they had a problem and the solution was provided by the company financing the advertisements. During the 1890’s people tried to adapt the demand after the supply and the market expanded. People needed to consume more. As a result, the advertising-driven, desiring and individual centric world we have today emerged.

Advertising was a way to arouse the desire to own rather than to convince the customer about the good qualities of the commodity. This prompted the emergence of shop windows. Large glass panes, however, had so far been associated with the churches and it was considered disgraceful for a shop to have these windows. People felt uncomfortable staring into a large glass window so department stores hired people whose sole job was to stand and look into the windows.

This was the brief history of why we have these dreadful places. How do they maintain their capabilities to inflict terror in me? Consumption is a way to satisfy our needs with materialities. This satisfaction, however, is illusory because otherwise we would not continue to buy. We seldom buy things for their own sake but rather what they are believed to stand for. People consume advertising and hope to find meaning in things. This is kind of how we consume past ruins today. We tend to follow the illusion that there is some meaning in these mute materialities.

One technique to direct the way we behave at the department store is the “music” genre called muzak.  It is played in slow pace to increase sales. At fast food restaurants muzak has a higher tempo so the customer finishes the meal faster. Cheap shops have a loud volume that stresses customers not to examine the goods carefully. Other tricks used to increase sales are swing doors and escalators since motion attracts attention. People slow down in places where a passage widens, and therefore this is usually where the most expensive goods are located. There are also studies that indicate how many meters a customer needs to slow down to a speed that is appropriate for studying the goods. For this reason the area where people slow down usually does not include goods. Most people take to the right when they enter a shop and therefore most important goods are located there. Department stores also want to make it difficult for customers to leave the place. A person who enters into a store looking for a product is to be turned into an out of focus impulse buyer. Finally, the bigger the cash register is the better the customer feels with the purchase and the likelihood that the customer returns will be greater.

There is one positive thing though despite the horror of these deceptive places. Shopping as an activity allowed the late 19th century “Western” women a greater freedom and it was an important part of women’s emancipation. The department stores created a new woman. It apparently created another man as well…

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