Aidan Smith: we’ve become nation who don’t care about shopkeepers

The huge warehouse of Amazon just shows how big a player the online retailer has become. Picture Phil Wilkinson
The huge warehouse of Amazon just shows how big a player the online retailer has become. Picture Phil Wilkinson
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At the B&M store in Granton, Edinburgh on Sunday morning, the checkout queues were pretty glum. Yo, ho and indeed ho were noticable by their absence. But then the nine-year-old bag-packers donned their funny, upside-down Santa hats. They did the dab. They even hummed along to I Believe in Father Christmas by the just-departed Greg Lake, which made this prog-rocking dad very happy. And by that stage the shoppers were happy, chucking their small change in the boys’ buckets.

It was a fun day for our football team and the money collected will help pay for next year’s trip. But as a snapshot of in-store, inter-personal activity, was it already a relic of some bygone age where people actually spend a few moments talking to each other?

This is another column about Amazon. You know these guys: we use them all the time while bemoaning how they’re killing our shops. Big, bad Amazon: obliterators of the high street, saviours of Christmas. Well, maybe we get the great, stomping, scaly-backed retail monster we deserve.

Say what you want about Americans. Criticise them for not turning up to collect the Nobel Prize (Bob Dylan) or for not turning up at important meetings monitoring wildlife protection at their Scottish golf resorts (Donald Trump), and by all means call them rude. But when they buy cabbages they expect a cheery “Have a nice day”. We on the other hand do not.

When Tesco tried to make inroads into the US it came a cropper with self-checkout. The company’s Fresh & Easy grocery stores failed, according to retail expert Nicla Di Palma, because “the American consumer likes service”. Brits can take it or leave it and for this reason she reckons we’re more likely than the US to fall in love with Amazon Go.

This will be Amazon’s first bricks-and-mortar supermarket. It’s opening in Seattle early in 2017 and, as with online ordering, customers’ accounts will be charged automatically without having to go through any payment process. An array of cameras and sensors will track shoppers’ every move. Fancy all of this? It’s right up our aisle, according to Di Palma, an equity analyst at wealth manager Brewer Dolphin.

How has it come to this? How have we gone from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of shoppers to a nation which seems quite happy for the shopping process to be completely dehumanised?

Look at the process now, beginning with the one-click purchase via smartphone over a glass of Chenin Blanc, our drinking at home killing pubs and all the sociability they offer, with one in four bars closing in Scotland in the past ten years, according to a new report. Then, if the parcel’s a big one, a journey to the nearest post office depot will be required, where, if we don’t produce proof of identity within three seconds staff – those specially trained to deal with the public – glower furiously from glass-fronted booths covered in notices stressing their right to work in an aggro-free environment.

When packages are delivered to our front doors we’re confronted by desperate men wielding what look like tasers. In fact, all that’s required of us is a squiggle more dubious than any doctor’s signature, even Harold Shipman’s. And why do these van-drivers look desperate? Because they haven’t been to the loo since Motherwell and that was yesterday, when we really wanted our goods to arrive.

Meanwhile, how’s Christmas going for the elves who work at Amazon’s warehouses? For the second weekend running, undercover reporters have exposed conditions at the company’s Scottish bases. In Gourock, staff were found to face disciplinary action if deemed to have taken too long during bathroom breaks while extra days and hours were compulsory. The report from Dunfermline two days ago revealed workers being threatened with the sack if off sick for four days, even with a doctor’s note. Bossed about by scanners tracking their movements, one employee complained: “You’re just a zombie.”

Now, retail monsters like making money – that’s how they become monsters. They may like it so much they’ll play fast and loose over tax. Maybe, by telling us we can have what we want yesterday, such a culture is created. But who says we’re not equally to blame? After all, it appeals to our ego and self-importance to say that we’re far too busy to shop by traditional means.

If all retail, including weekly food-shopping, eventually does away with tills and queues – and human contact – then we might start to view those stressful encounters with post office staff in a nostalgic light. We might pine for the good old days of self-checkout when something went wrong with the machinery – or we were too stupid to work it or we were buying Chenin Blanc for more online ordering later – and we’d have to summon a store assistant for the strange, forgotten purpose of interaction. And our children might open a book – ancient history, as they would see it – and point to a photograph of a shop bizarrely situated in the heart of a community with an owner who appears to have some status and respectability and laugh: “Exactly how old are you, Dad?”

That said, the hardware store at the heart of my community is run by a monumentally grumpy fellow who makes no acknowledgement of Christmas. It’s “Bah, rawlplug” in this emporium and when I’m shopping for fork handles I’m afraid I use Amazon. Same for when I need four candles.