The Anonymity of Capitalism

A new co-op store opened at the bottom of my street a few weeks ago. Its opening heralded much rejoicing. At least in our house. Our regular midweek trips to the supermarket, a short drive away, for a bottle of wine (gin, actually) would be no more. Now we get to pick things up on the school run.

A truly convenient convenience store: not too far away, so it’s not a huge burden to drag yourself to, and the shopping back. Accessible on foot, so you can still get there safely after a couple of drinks; it is staffed by a large variety of young people on a varying rota basis, so a welcome servile anonymity.

You see, my partner and I don’t much like the nod or smile of recognition which seems to inevitably come with frequenting the same place time and again. We’re not “regulars”; we don’t want to know your name, nor do we want you to remember ours. Smile politely and move on, we often cringe.

Hence our increasing use of online shopping for an increasingly frequent number of things. I was asked the other day where I had bought a piece of glassware; the only response I could muster was “the internet”. If the web could make me a cup of tea, or choose my t-shirt for the day, I’d let it.

The issue which arises, when in search of anonymity, is the death of small, local business. Prior to the opening of the new co-op we used to occasionally frequent a local, family run corner shop. It is run by a lovely, friendly, helpful family, who would take the time to get to know what you needed.

One of the reasons we gradually stopped going there was that they gave my daughter a strawberry sweet one day. We’re not always against her having sweets, but she began to demand them, and that would never do. The thing that killed our visits altogether was the opening of the new co-op.

The new shop is one minute further away, which should be a disincentive, but it never could be. It offers a rich array of goods and services (Bacon sandwiches! Freshly ground coffee! Free cashpoint!), which our friendly neighbourhood shop could never compete with. Their alcohol is cheaper too.

The final nail in the coffin is the self checkouts. They may not always work, in the strictest sense, but they mean that all human contact can be reduced to a simple smile as the assistant tells the screen that you are indeed over 25, and so can buy that cider. The supermarket’s greatest innovation.

This conflict between supporting local business and revelling in utter convenience is the reason that we are destined to lose our local businesses. Not “we are destined to lose our local businesses if we are not careful”. We’re not careful: we’re decadent and indulgent; we’re selfish and self-centred; we’re downright lazy and blind to the plight of others, once we’ve stopped seeing them most days.

The anonymity the internet-based consumer culture we revel in affords us the ability to no longer look business owners in the eye when we search for our better deals. We know that bad deals, in the name of convenience or hard work, support small business, but we’re not willing to bend to that.

This has an effect on other forms of business too; look at a craft fair: we leisurely wander around; we look at lots of wonderfully crafted pieces; we allow our minds to wander for a seductive moment at the thought of such adornments entering our homes. Then we look at the price tags, and the reverie is crushed. The problem is that the price tag reflects the true price of the goods we want: the hard work, the effort and the expertise. The true price without the economies of scale of the large chains.

A new bakery started a short walk from my house late last year. I believe they started out covering local markets. They were then able to open a shop at weekends; then a few days during the week. Their food is fantastic, and their service is friendly. They are always packed, and often sell out. The comment I hear most from their customers, bread and cakes in hand, is “I hope you stay open.” We want local business to succeed, but we know in our hearts that they are destined, perennially, to fail.

The internet also allows new businesses to start, grow and flourish: more often than not out of the spare room and spare time of one person’s busy life. These businesses don’t need store fronts; they need social media savvy and a great deal of personal commitment. Are they the future of trade?

Most years my Christmas shopping is done purely online. Quite often it comprises one single order from Amazon. Not so long ago this all came from one seller; Amazon themselves; now, this would be very rare indeed. The sellers Amazon allows me to buy from are truly international. The trade may not be fair in the strictest sense, but it is very free, allowing global commerce on a personal scale.

As much as I crave anonymity and convenience, I hate to see businesses run by families fail. I always wonder what they’ll do next. As much as I hate recognition, I desperately want to be part of the club.

My hypocrisy is key to why small businesses fail and why large ones are able to expand their chains of small shops to all corners. It is key to why part-time entrepreneurs can get a foothold in such a competitive marketplace. It is also key to why craftspeople are forever being squeezed on price by a public unwilling to pay more than the chain stores are able to charge for products made in factories.

What do we do with such conflicting feelings? Do we wring our hands and spend as much as we can in local shops, in order to prop up a failing landscape? Or do we hold our noses while we shop with convenience in mind, knowing that we are ringing a soundless death knell? I think we do neither.

I think we must shop as we see fit: the market will out. We shop with our heads, our hearts, and our stomachs: the viable proposition will win the day; those unfit to go on will wither on the vine. It’s not the best for our consciences, but we must never confuse business with charity, regardless the pain.