In thinking about the subject I came to the conclusion that the motor car was responsible for our lack of choice today when we go shopping. I was thinking about a complex in a town just outside Belfast which had a huge parking area, one Tesco’s shop, 15 to 20 small shops, and a restaurant. The small shops were what actually required the large parking area because they covered so many different aspects of shopping, from computing, a watchmaker’s, food shops, garden shops the list is almost endless and there was very little duplication. One day Tesco’s bought up the area and is in the process of building a vast complex of its own, and almost overnight all those little shops were closed down. I know of one young man, who held all the merchandise necessary for computer printing, together with other aspects as well. He had to pack up and find somewhere else, and was hardly established there, when it too was bought up and he had to move again. The trauma that this must have caused him and inconvenience it caused to his customers is not hard to imagine. The people who frequented the original complex have never recovered the ease with which they could satisfy so many of their needs just by walking round a few shops. Now those shops are scattered throughout the area, those that haven’t closed forever, and now we have to use the car to go from place to place to get the same or similar articles. If people hadn’t cars, there would be no supermarkets. But the change doesn’t stop there.
When shopping was mainly to smaller shops scattered throughout a city or a town, the merchandise was decided upon by the owner of the shop, with the result of this, the owners’ tastes varied from individual to individual, so the stock of similar shops varied, and choice was consequently increased. Now we have a reverse of that, with a consequent reduction in choice. Chain stores, generally have central purchase, it is this that enables them to be so competitive. The taste therefore, is ultimately settled upon by a small group and the outcome is what you are offered, and is what either suits them, or they think suits you, and that is all, and all you can select from. The next change that has happened is the era of the label, that little piece of advertising you’re carrying about on your clothes for two reasons, one is it is there you can do nothing about it, the second is that some feel that there is a cachet to be achieved by purchasing and wearing a ‘name’. This approach alone must inevitably reduce choice, as fashion has overtaken commonsense. Yet three more aspects of the reduction in choice are, cheap imports, buying on the Internet, and TV advertising. If you are advertising, with low prices, as a result of cheap imports, and mass production, you can’t offer a wide range and make the same profit. The same constrictions must also apply to Internet shopping. In my own case I have discovered that to a great extent my taste is not catered for, because I have never belonged to the throwaway society, so I tend to buy things that will wear well and last a long time.
Some people buy by these inverted auctions on TV, where the price starts high, with a fixed number of products on offer, and as people bid the number of articles available is reduced and so is the price. This again is a case of limited choice, but is also accompanied by small print which advises that there are additional costs to be paid, including telephone charges, packaging and transport. I have not used the system, but I understand that the items are not ultimately quite as cheap as they would appear at first sight.